An Irishman’s Diary about the bad language and worse behaviour of Frank Sinatra

Songs for swinging lovers

Ol’ Blue Eyes.  Photograph: Metronome/Getty Images

Ol’ Blue Eyes. Photograph: Metronome/Getty Images

 

On foot of a recent column about people who can’t speak a sentence with putting the word f**k in it at least once, I received an appallingly fascinating letter from Howth reader George O’Reilly.

The letter’s general point is that mindlessly repetitive swearing is not just an Irish trait, as I might have implied – that Italian-Americans can be prone to it too.

But the more particular point of George’s story also explains what the Hollywood dancing star Juliet Prowse meant when she said of her short-lived 1962 engagement to Frank Sinatra: “Frank was a complex person, and after a few drinks he could be very difficult.”

During a long career in the music business, George O’Reilly used to move in such stellar circles.

Or at any rate, he moved in the circles Bing Crosby did, thanks to a friendship that began with fan letters, continued with face-to-face contacts, and developed until George became known as “Bing’s favourite Irishman”.

In this vein, one night in February 1962, they were having dinner together at Crosby’s Los Angeles home when the singer asked his Dublin guest if he might like to attend a late recording session nearby in which Dean Martin was putting together a collection of Italian standards to follow up the recent success of That’s Amore.

This question was of course as easily answered as the one about whether the Pope is a Catholic. So after dinner, while Crosby stayed behind, his driver brought O’Reilly around to the studio where Martin, along with bandleader Nelson Riddle, a choir, orchestra, and various others, were hard at work – work that was lubricated throughout, in Martin’s case, by large glasses of vodka.

They all made a suitable fuss of Bing’s Irish friend, who was still adjusting to this exalted company, when the door burst open and another group entered “like a parade – four bulky men on the left, four bulky men on the right, and in the middle none other than Sinatra, followed by a lovely lady (to whom I was later introduced), dancer Juliet Prowse”.

Sinatra immediately proceeded to take over the session. Having pushed Riddle aside, knocking his baton to the floor, he then picked it up and declared that he would be conducting from here on and that, by the way, the choir were “a bunch of dagos” who couldn’t pronounce Italian properly.

Thereafter, recalls George, his every utterance – to the choir, orchestra, recording technicians, and anyone else he had to talk to – contained at least one “f**k”, which despite being an Anglo-Saxon word, Sinatra pronounced impeccably in all its forms.

His already truculent mood was not helped when, a while later, the studio clock struck midnight. As in Cinderella (which must have been set in a union house), the musicians stopped playing, reminding Sinatra they were entitled a one-hour break at 12am and that if they resumed at 1am, it would be on a higher rate.

So the main protagonists and their Dublin guest all adjourned to a nearby restaurant, where Ol’ Blue Eyes continued to curse a blue streak, the frequency of his f-words if anything increasing, like the musicians’ fees.

His female friend, alas, was on the receiving end of many of them.

But that wasn’t the worst thing, as O’Reilly remembers. Half-way through the meal, to everyone’s horror, Sinatra “leaned across the table and punched her in the face, fracturing her nose and causing her to bleed profusely”. And as Prowse was ushered into the kitchen to be treated, the Dubliner decided it was time to go. He adds, with a touch of 53-year-old guilt, that “while Sinatra ranted, raved and cursed, we, all men, were silent and said or did nothing”.

Sinatra’s relationship with Prowse had begun, by the way, a couple of years earlier, on the set of the film Can Can (famously visited by Nikita Khrushchev, who considered the dancing decadent), when she was one of a 16-strong chorus line.

Surveying the line for the first time, Sinatra expressed a desire to do something that also included the f-word with all 16 of them. And it’s said that he followed through on that plan. But with Prowse, obviously, the attraction lasted longer.

As the singer’s centenary approaches, meanwhile, there’s still no sign of Martin Scorsese’s long-promised biopic. We certainly won’t see it before Sinatra’s 100th birthday, on December 12th. Even so, given Scorsese’s mastery of sex, violence, and bad language, we can at least be confident that the project is in the right hands.

@FrankmcnallyIT