Eamonn McCann: In praise of Dolly Sinatra

Crooner’s mother was one a of generation of strong, unafraid women without whom the world would be a less enlightened place

A hundred years ago this Saturday, on the kitchen table of a two-room apartment in a tenement building in Hoboken, New Jersey, Dolly Sinatra gave birth to a boy. It was not an easy delivery. Dolly was 19, tiny, under five feet, weighed 95 pounds. The labour lasted 30 hours. The doctor, when he came, clamped forceps on the baby's head and, in Dolly's words years later, "yanked him out". He weighed in at 13.5lb. The forceps left severe scarring on his left cheek, his neck and ear.

The infant – “huge and blue, bleeding from his wounds and apparently dead,” according to a recent biography – was put down on the draining board beside the sink while the doctor frantically attended to Dolly’s ravaged body. She would never be able to have another child. A neighbour held the baby under cold water and began vigorously slapping its back. It coughed, snuffled and bawled.

Born in Genoa

Natalina Maria Vitoria

Garaventa had been born in Genoa in northern

Italy

on December 26th, 1896. It is said she was dubbed “Dolly” because she was such a pretty baby. The family emigrated to the United States when she was two. At 16, she met

Antonio Martin Sinatra

, two years older, who was intermittently employed as a shoemaker’s assistant and boxed as a bantamweight with middling success as Marty Irish O’Brien. (The Irish provided a better market for fighters than the Italians.) The Garaventa family was not happy. He was the illiterate son of Sicilian peasants. They were Genovese.

His family seemed to share a sense of the inappropriateness of the relationship and ordered Marty to end it. On St Valentine’s Day 1914 the couple eloped and got married in Jersey City without benefit of church blessing. Back in Hoboken, they found their tenement flat in Little Italy and moved in. For a considerable time, neither side spoke to them. To devout Catholics, the couple was not properly married at all, but living in sin.

The fact that Frank was to be an only child in a community of extended families teeming with children added to the oddness of the Sinatras’ situation. But Dolly was a go-getter and took nothing lying down. She was endlessly energetic, full of confidence and a natural organiser.

Speaking a number of Italian dialects as well as English fluently, she was regularly called on by Italian groups as translator between new immigrants and the agencies and statutory bodies with which they had to liaise.

She was a constant presence at hearings of citizenship applications. The connections which came with these roles were to make her a valuable recruit for the New Jersey Democrats.

The party machine was dominated by the Irish. But the Irish bosses needed Italian votes, too, to maintain control. Dolly was soon a “ward boss”, tasked with delivering a specific 800-1,000 votes every election, which she did. She was the first immigrant woman to hold such a position in New Jersey. Son Frank was regularly left all day with Jewish neighbours. She used the bit of political clout she now had to get Marty a job as a fireman, even though the position demanded a written examination and he could neither read nor write.

This was the era of Tammany Hall, when buying votes and bartering for jobs and preferment was just the way things were done. Since the Irish establishment owed her, Dolly was in a position to deliver jobs, favours, access to officials, etc, to the Italians whose votes she would later be coming for. She was close to successive Hoboken mayors.

But she was always more than a mere fixer. From her earliest tip-toe into the political arena, Dolly was a doughty campaigner for women’s rights. She was arrested with six others in 1919 for chaining themselves to the railings outside Hoboken town hall in support of votes for women. She was an open advocate of the right to choose and, free of charge, helped organise illegal abortions for women in desperate straits.

Dolly and Marty remained married for more than 50 years. He died in 1969. Not even the most assiduous dirt-diggers who have sifted through the Sinatra story have unearthed a sliver of personal scandal.

This is not to say Dolly was any sort of angel. She drank and she smoked and she swore. In later years, when Frank had become a successful entertainer and she had money to burn, she took to the gaming rooms of Las Vegas with considerable panache but, as always in Vegas, little sense. Many's the night she measured her losses in thousands, and shrugged. Some would say she had earned the right.

She was one of a generation of strong, unafraid women without whom the world would be a less enlightened place. She was the little thing that meant a lot. She deserves to be remembered in her own right.