Nancy Sinatra, first wife of Frank Sinatra, dies at 101

Nancy Barbato was the first of the singer’s four wives and the mother of his three children

Nancy Sinatra with Frank Sinatra in March 1964 as he looks at the Oscar he won for his performance role in  The House I Live In. Photograph: AP

Nancy Sinatra with Frank Sinatra in March 1964 as he looks at the Oscar he won for his performance role in The House I Live In. Photograph: AP

 

The church in Jersey City where they married held a portent in its very name: Our Lady of the Sorrows. It was the thick of the Depression – 1939 – and they were so poor that just two days after the wedding they returned to their jobs, she as a secretary, he as a singing waiter.

She was an ordinary young woman, a plasterer’s daughter from a large Italian-American family, born in Jersey City in 1917. Her given names were Nancy Rose, her maiden name Barbato. He was a far-from-ordinary young man, a scrappy kid who played the ukulele and sang, born to a small Italian-American family in Hoboken in 1915. His given names were Francis Albert. By now you know his surname.

For a dozen tumultuous years Frank and Nancy Sinatra were husband and wife – a swath of time that included hearth, home and children for her and, for him, unparalleled fame and fortune and a string of extramarital romances that were grist for the gossip columns.

What is surprising, given the circumstances, is that for nearly half a century – from the end of their marriage in 1951 until his death, at 82, in 1998 – Nancy Barbato Sinatra, who died Friday at 101, remained her ex-husband’s cherished friend and quiet confidante.

Her daughter Nancy Sinatra, the singer, announced the death on Twitter. Their marriage had been the first for each of them: He would go on to have three more. It remained, to the end of Nancy Sinatra’s long life, her only one.

Writing about Frank Sinatra in 1962, the fan magazine TV-Radio Mirror said: “He has more than once sought out Nancy Sinatra, even though she does not fit into the fast-moving, neurotic world he seems to prefer. The simple truth is that today, Frank sees Nancy more regularly than he did through much of their marriage.”

Nancy Sinatra with daughter and singer Nancy in 2004. Photograph: Kevin Winter/AFP/Getty Images
Nancy Sinatra with daughter and singer Nancy in 2004. Photograph: Kevin Winter/AFP/Getty Images

In some respects, Nancy Sinatra’s life was of a piece with those of many women of the 1930s and 1940s. She did all the cooking, sewed her own clothes and encouraged her husband’s professional aspirations. In other ways it was singular. She answered his fan mail and, in the mid-1940s, followed him to California when a career in motion pictures beckoned.

As his renown grew, she endured rumors of his infidelity. Rumor became humiliation when he left her for Ava Gardner, one of Hollywood’s most celebrated beauties.

It was a matter of record that Nancy Sinatra got custody of their three children: Nancy and Frank Jr., both of whom grew up to have careers as pop singers, and Christina, known as Tina, who became an actress and producer.

What was perhaps less widely known was the fact of Frank Sinatra’s continuing visits; his long, confiding late-night phone calls; and the family dinners on birthdays, holidays and many other occasions.

“I can remember times when she would be on the phone with her ex-husband, and the next thing I knew some eggplant was coming out of the freezer to thaw so that she could make him some sandwiches when he showed up,” Nancy Sinatra’s granddaughter A.J. Lambert wrote in a 2015 remembrance in Vanity Fair

Survivors include her daughters Nancy and Tina. Information on other survivors was not immediately available. Her son, Frank Sinatra Jr., died in 2016, at 72. – New York Times