“There are two kinds of people in this town,” my boss Sam Bledsoe advised when I first arrived in Washington more than half a century ago. “Those that drop names and those whose names are dropped.” His advice, obviously, was to try to be the latter.
Sorry Sam, I tried my damnedest…
About Frank Sinatra, whose life was celebrated this past week by an HBO documentary: I knew him, introduced him to (another name-drop coming) Bear Bryant, and even spent time at his place in Palm Desert, thanks to another employer after Sam, Vice President Spiro Agnew, and his personal aide Peter Malatesta, a Sinatra friend and (if you’re still counting name-drops) Bob Hope’s nephew.
The story that goes with all this empty-calorie self-aggrandizement has to do with the first time I saw The Godfather, back in 1971. Agnew was a guest at Sinatra’s Palm Desert villa and Frank (if you’re going to name-drop the first name is more impressive) asked if there were any new movies the Vice President would like to see. He’d have one flown in to show in his private theater.
Whether as a joke or to test the limits of their friendship, Agnew asked to see The Godfather – a movie Sinatra was said to get ballistic over because it alluded to the mythic rumor that the Mafia had muscled (1) Tommy Dorsey into releasing him from his contract, and (2) the producer of From Here to Eternity into giving him the Academy Award-winning role of Maggio.
Sinatra, to his credit, didn’t flinch at Agnew’s request. So it was that we gathered that evening – the Vice President, Frank, his mother, Dolly, and a few other guests to see the movie based on a novel that Frank hated so much he threatened to punch out its author, Mario Puzo.
Our host’s reaction? Not a murmur during the scenes in which his on-screen character, Johnny Fontane, appeared, but when it came to the scene where Clemenza talks about preparing spaghetti and meatballs, both Sinatras, mother and son, exploded. Clearly, we were led to conclude, whoever wrote the screenplay knew nothing about cooking Italian.
Asked by our host the next morning what he thought of the movie, the Vice President, pushing the envelope, told Sinatra it was okay except for Brando’s don, adding, “You would have been better for the part.” To which Frank, not missing a beat, narrowed his eyelids and, with mock guttural inflection, replied, “You’re right.” Agnew laughed. So did another person at the table, whose name escapes me.
Sound bite to remember
“I’m for anything that gets you through the night, be it prayer, tranquilizers, or a bottle of Jack Daniels.”
–Frank Sinatra, asked about his religious beliefs, circa 1963