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A black eye for Old Blue Eyes

A memoir about the life of Frank Sinatra depicts a brilliant entertainer who had to cope with myriad demons and whose “hate list” always loomed large.

No one ever accused Frank Sinatra of being a nice guy. On those occasions I happened upon him in a restaurant or at a business meeting, his mood ranged from angry to surly. He always seemed eager to create an “incident” that would remind us of his star quality.

In view of this, I was surprised to catch some TV interviews these past two weeks in which Sinatra’s long-time valet, George Jacobs, was fondly reminiscing about Old Blue Eyes.

Responding to the usual puffy questions, Jacobs cited examples from his new book (called “Mr. S” and written with William Stadiem) of Sinatra’s happy interactions with the likes of Ava Gardner, John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Bogart, Elvis and Dean Martin.

Sinatra happy? That was a new concept for me. Were revisionist accounts of his life now describing him as an upbeat Zelig-like wanderer who enriched the lives of celebrities of his epoch?

To answer this question, I decided to pick up a copy of the book — something that TV interviewers never deign to do — and discover what Sinatra’s valet really said.

Guess what? The Sinatra described in “Mr. S” turns out to be even darker than I remembered him — a thuggish individual who venerated gangsters, indulged in sadistic practical jokes and vengeful feuds, turned on friends and lovers with cosmic rage, pimped for anyone named Kennedy and generally went through life making those around him miserable.

Everyone, that is, except his audiences. His fans loved him — and with good reason. He was not just an entertainer; he was a natural resource. He was a genius songsmith who brought his music to life.

But he wasn’t exactly one of nature’s noblemen. His “hate list” ruled his life. He hated the Beatles and Elvis because they stole his thunder (at least the Beatles were white, he joked).

He was paranoid that “powerful Jews” like Lew Wasserman or Sam Spiegel were trying to de-rail his career. He hated Marlon Brando for denigrating his acting talents. He hated anyone for trying to steal his girlfriends of the moment, whether they be Ava Gardner or Lauren Bacall, Kim Novak or Natalie Wood.

According to his valet, however, Sinatra also had his list of “likes,” especially Rat Pack pals like Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. He thought Richard Nixon was a great guy because he opposed the drug culture and those nasty hippies (his wife at the time, Mia Farrow, was the ultimate flower child).

He positively venerated Sam Giancana, the notorious hood, because he was “a business mastermind” who understood power (he was lured by him into the disastrous Cal-Neva Lodge, the Lake Tahoe hideaway that was a sort of mob cathedral).

And he would do anything to bolster young JFK’s social life. “I want to fuck every woman in Hollywood,” the young Kennedy allegedly told George Jacobs, and this was a mission that Jacobs and his boss were well-suited to fulfill.

Sinatra’s enthusiasms for the Kennedys would soon cool when JFK declined to stay at his Palm Springs estate and when he realized that both Jackie and JFK’s brother, Bobby, felt that “Mr. S.” was “beneath the dignity of the country.”

Sinatra promptly started hoping for the return of Nixon.

Like all superstars, Sinatra had his eccentric foibles. One of the duties of his valet every morning was to spray hair coloring over his boss’s bald spot and apply heavy makeup to his face (there was a childhood scar on the left side stemming from a doctor’s ineptness during delivery). His gigantic wardrobe was neatly categorized, with a whole closet devoted to orange (his favorite color).

By and large, Sinatra treated his valet well, traveling everywhere and confiding problems of his love life. Sinatra was furious when George C. Scott beat up Ava Gardner. He was nervous during his Natalie Wood dalliance because it was unclear whether she was actually 15 or 18. Jacobs claims he spied Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich in a clinch scene after skinny-dipping.

But though Sinatra was generous with Jacobs, he also made him the butt of his favorite form of humor — racial epithets (Jacobs is black).

“For a black man, what’s long and hard?” Sinatra would typically ask his friends in Jacobs’ company. The answer: “Third grade.” Sinatra thought this was very funny.

Are the random recollections of a valet entirely trustworthy?

Not exactly. Especially since Jacobs’ tour of duty was 1953-68, which was a long time ago. Understandably, Jacobs wants to sell some books, and he’s got some good stories to tell. But the ones he tells on television are a lot kinder than those hidden in the pages of his book.

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