Frank Sinatra and the Jews: How we all got under his skin

To mark what would have been his centenary year, Frank Sinatra’s biographer reveals the extraordinary connection the singer had to Jews and Israel


Everyone - of a certain age - knows that Frankie became the Chairman of the Board. What they probably don't know was that the board was that of his local synagogue in Palm Springs. Of course, it was just an honorary job, but the Temple wanted to show their appreciation in some way. For without Frank Sinatra they might still be in what the estate agents like to call temporary accommodation.

Now that his millions of still living fans are marking the centenary of the birth of the Chairman who became Ol' Blue Eyes, it's time to tell. Of course, he couldn't formally hold the office. The Catholic Mr Sinatra had the problem of missing requirements.

His association began when he heard from his lawyer, accountant and assorted other associates who happened to be members of the shul. He would have heard about it anyway. When your so-called best friends include Sammy Davis Jnr (whom he liked to call "the one-eyed Jewish black man''); his other Rat Pack colleague, comedian Joey Bishop, whom he called "The Jew"; to say nothing of the songwriters Sammy Cahn and Julie Styne; there wasn't much doubt that the word would get out.

He defended Jews the way he spoke up for Italians and blacks. He fought with them the way he argued with newspaper people like Dorothy Kilgallen, who wrote something to which Frank took exception. He sent her a tombstone and then complained she hadn't used it. He probably tried to have certain Jews rubbed out the way he arranged to kill at least one man who, for some reason or other, didn't like the idea that Ol' Blue Eyes was dating his wife. When Jackie Mason had the audacity to criticise Sinatra on a television show, his apartment was broken into and a shot was heard inside the darkened flat. "I don't know who it was," Mason was to tell me, "but when the door slammed shut, I distinctly heard someone singing 'Doobie, Doobie Doo'."

Sinatra was a complex collection of contradictions. He supported more Jewish charities than most American Jews - and undoubtedly more than any other Catholic. And he helped individual Jews in trouble - like the way he got the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas to (reluctantly) agree that Sammy Davis should be allowed to walk through the foyer of the hotel where he was playing. "I don't know whether he did so because I was black or because I was a Jew," Sammy told me when I was working on my Sinatra biography.

There was definitely a feeling of minority sympathy. On the other hand when Sammy dared to sing "My Way" and finish the song with the immortal phrase, "Eat you heart out Frankie," Sinatra didn't talk to his old friend for seven years.

But there was the time when Frank heard that the Jewish actor, Lee J Cobb was seriously ill but couldn't afford to go into a prestigious hospital. He didn't know Cobb, but had seen him in the film, Twelve Angry Men and admired his work. Quite suddenly, Cobb (real name Leo Jacoby) heard that he was being transferred to the Jewish Cedars-Sinai Hospital and that someone had instructed one of America's leading cardiologist to treat him. "The bill is being paid by Frank Sinatra," he was told. Not just that, Frank gave him an apartment in which he could convalesce.

His feeling towards Jews probably went back to his childhood in Hoboken, the New Jersey port town across the Hudson River from New York City. Near him lived Mrs Golden, who used to babysit. Until late old age, he wore a mezuzah charm that she had given him.

He frequently let people know how he hated antisemitism. As a young singer with the Tommy Dorsey band, he heard a newspaperman calling another band member "Jew bastard''. Sinatra knocked him to the ground. As he said: "When I was a kid and someone called me a "dirty little Guinea", there was only one thing to do - break his head." That from the man who, as a child, took exception to another boy calling him a Wop: "A Jew friend of mine creamed him."

But those were not the reasons for receiving dozens of Jewish awards.Like that from the National Association of Christians and Jews, and the Fellowship of the Simon Weisenthal Centre. Which brings us back to the Palm Springs Temple. Frank had performed at a benefit show aimed at raising several million dollars for the deposit for a new building. Sinatra did his show without charging a cent and the money was raised. A few years later, the temple decided it was time to wipe out the mortgage that still existed on the building. A new show was held and Tony Bennett came along to make a free-of-charge star appearance.

Frank was furious. "Why didn't you ask me," he asked the president of the congregation. "We thought you had done enough," he was told. He was still angry but said that nothing would stop him going on - as the warm-up act for Bennett.

That was a big "award". Another was the Israeli Medallion of Valour for raising several millions for Israeli causes. Teddy Kollek, Mayor of the capital, gave him the Jerusalem Foundation Award.

Kollek had good reason to be grateful to Frank. In 1947, Sinatra was appearing at Manhattan's swank Copacabana night club. It was a favourite spot for the man who at the time ran the Jewish Agency's New York office - which was situated above the club. He became a Sinatra fan and went to the show whenever he could. He also got to know the singer - well enough to ask a favour. He had a million dollars stashed away in his safe which had to be taken to a ship due to leave a New York pier for Mexico. In exchange for the money, there would be a whole cache of arms ready to go to the putative Israeli army in what was still Palestine.

The trouble was that, if Kollek was seen walking in the street with a case that looked big enough to carry a fortune, he would be arrested and the money confiscated. So he asked Sinatra to take it for him.

The man everyone knew as "Teddy" said: ''The FBI were watching us. We wondered if Frank could be persuaded to help." Not only could Frank be persuaded, he relished helping the cause with more enthusiasm than when offered a new song to sing. He took the satchel of money, the cop outside did a slight salute, smiled and asked: "Which broad is it tonight?" He should only have known.

Sinatra's connection with Israel would be everlasting. It began with a phone call to Melville Shavelson, who wrote a book called, How To Make A Jewish Movie, about the film he wrote, directed and produced - Cast a Giant Shadow, about the early days of Israel. This starred another of Frank's Jewish friends, Kirk Douglas. Sinatra heard about it and virtually demanded a part. He even flew from Rome ,where he was filming, to Tel Aviv to play the role of the pilot of the Piper Cub plane who scared a whole Arab division by dropping Seltzer bottles from his open cockpit. "I told him," said Shavelson, "we could film him in Italy. He insisted on coming to Israel."

I was there to see him in action when he spoke at the dedication ceremony of a new wing of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. He heard the Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, talking about the way the Romans had once conquered the site. "You should have called me," Frank said in his speech, "they're my boys, you know, the Romans."

Later, he and Melville Shavelson attended the opening ceremony of a kibbutz youth wing which Sinatra had donated. "There were a lot of speeches in Hebrew, which of course Frank didn't understand, Shavelson recalled. 'Come on,' he said to me, 'let's get out of here, I've got a couple of broads waiting for us in Tel Aviv'."

He always had broads waiting for him. The most notable Jewish one was Lauren Bacall, who had been "Den Mother" of her late husband Humphrey Bogart's original Rat Pack.

They were going to get married but it was kept secret at Sinatra's request. Then he discovered she had had table napkins printed with their two names inscribed on them. He was so furious he cancelled the marriage.

Despite how much he was loved by his Jewish friends, not all were pleased with everything he did. One Pesach, Mickey Rudin, Sinatra's lawyer, had to keep getting up from the Seder table to answer Frank's phone calls.

In the end, Rudin declared that he'd "had enough of the guy."

There were a lot who said that - and a lot who didn't. The members of the almost-all-Jewish Hillcrest country club in Beverly Hills applauded when they elected him and Jack Lemmon as their then only gentile members. They mostly liked the way he did things His Way.

Michael Freedland's book, 'All The Way: A Biography of Frank Sinatra', is published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson

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