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Frank Sinatra, the Mob and the Kennedy Clan (part 2)

Updated on February 28, 2023

The very good years

In the wake of Kennedy's election victory, Sinatra's star had never been higher. His life appeared to be one long, successful party. He was an admired friend of one of the most powerful men in the world and he was the leader of the Rat Pack, who were considered the hippest entertainers on the planet. And his own business world was expanding: he was the owner of film and publishing companies, he had a deal with United Artists to distribute any movie that he saw fit to make and he had a growing stake in his personal playground, the Sands. And free at last from his Capitol contract, he even had his own record company, Reprise.

On the breakage's road

Moreover, many of the movies that Sinatra appeared in during the early 1960s suggested a man with dormant talent who preferred having fun and making money to thinking about quality. He acquired a small cameo habit and popped his head over the scenery to little effect in Pepe, The Road To Hong Kong and The List Of Adrian Messenger, and the Rat Pack films of the period (Ocean's 11, Sergeants 3, 4 For Texas and Robin And The 7 Hoods) oozed complacency. There was, however, an exception, The Manchurian Candidate, a chilling movie in 1962 about brainwashing, communism and assassination that was proof that when Sinatra the actor had the material he could still be compelling.

Meanwhile Sinatra's relationship with the Kennedys was beginning to unravel. The Kennedy camp had started to get nervous, even before JFK's victory, of being involved with someone as controversial as Sinatra, however useful he was, and once the presidency was won the White House kept him at a discreet distance. Jackie Kennedy, the First Lady, actively disliked Sinatra, and Robert Kennedy, who as the newly-appointed Attorney General had set his sights on tackling organized crime, was reportedly irritated by Peter Lawford's requests -allegedly on behalf of Sinatra- to ease up on Giancana. Moreover, he had received a memo from J. Edgar Hoover flagging up Sinatra's alleged ties with organised crime. To Bobby, Frank was a liability.

JFK in Palm Springs

The President JFK, however, remained fascinated by the singer, quizzing his mistress Judith Campbell for gossip about Sinatra's latest exploits and still phoning him occasionally. And although Sinatra was never invited to any official events at the White House, he had been on a Kennedy family weekend trip (without Jackie) to Hyannisport in September 1961. So when it was announced that JFK would be paying a visit to Palm Springs in February 1962, Sinatra assumed that he would be his host and prepared by building extra bungalows and a heliport, paying the builders overtime to work around the clock.

Sinatra was cruised when Peter Lawford told him that the President would be staying with Bing Crosby (a Republican). The official line was that the choice was made for security reasons -Crosby's place backed onto a mountain and Sinatra's was open on all four sides- but the move was a clear attempt by the White House to dissociate itself from Sinatra.

However hurtful this was, Sinatra understood that his own image had become somewhat tarnished over the years, and from the middle of 1962 he made considerable efforts to redress the balance. A tour of Europe was organized that would benefit underprivilged children, an orphanage was named after him in Tokyo, and he received honours in Nazareth and Paris and mingled with royalty in London. His new public relations officer, Chuck Moses, made sure that everything was covered in the newspapers. Sinatra even gave some amiable interviews, notably to the British journalist Robin Douglas-Home, which led to the book Sinatra. A celebrated Playboy interview that appeared in January 1963 did much to present Sinatra as an articulate, deep-thinking, compassionate liberal. But public relations couldn't save him from the disaster that was Cal-Neva.

The Cal-Neva's disaster

In the summer of 1961 Sinatra had opened the Cal-Neva Lodge, his own hotel, casino and cabaret resort on Lake Tahoe's Crystal Bay. Built on the California-Nevada border, it allowed gambling on the Nevada side of the resort, but the main attraction was the Celebrity Room, which hosted shows by the top stars of the day, including Eddie Fisher, Dean Martin, Victor Borge and Lena Horne. Sinatra enjoyed playing host to the scores of celebrity visitors and took a close interest in all aspects of the business.

But it wasn't long before various incidents made Cal-Neva a hothouse of controversy. An employee was apparently the victim of an attempted murder on the lodge's front steps. A local deputy sheriff who was married to an ex-girlfriend of Sinatra died in a car accident only weeks after he had an argument with Frank in the kitchen; no accusations were made and no charges were brought, but years later there were still rumours.

Cal-Neva attracted the wrong sort of attention. The FBI investigated allegations that there was a system in which prostitutes, flown in from San Francisco, could be ordered as easily as room service. Gaming investigators attempting to monitor the takings were offered bribes but reported the incident instead. And although Sam Giancana was forbidden on the premises of any Nevada casino, he frequented the lodge and was reportedly observed by the FBI both playing golf with and dining with Sinatra. Ostensibly, he was visiting his girlfriend Phillis, one of the McGuire Sisters, who were singing there; but even though Cal-Neva was officially owned by Sinatra, Hank Sanicola and Sanford Waterman, a bookmaker and ex-manager of Meyer Lansky's casinos in Nevada, it was believed -certainly by the FBI- to be backed by silent Mob money.

Giancana's presence at Cal-Neva was reported by the FBI to the Nevada Gaming Commissions and in autumn 1963 Sinatra had to answer some awkward questions. Starting with a reasonable manner and a line that he saw him but didn't invite him, Sinatra soon became irritated at the issuing of subpoenas and the refusal of the chief gaming commissioner, Ed Olsen, to take an informal approach. He lost his temper on the phone, launching a foul-mouthed tirade that was hard to interpret as anything but a threat. Olsen sought to revoke's Sinatra's licence as a result of the Giancana incident, the attempted bribery and the intimidation. Intending at first to fight the charges, Sinatra gave in when it became clear that Olsen's office had been listening to his outburst and had a signed witness statement that gave details of a fight at the lodge involving Giancana. In the absence of a defence, his gambling licence was revoked, and this perceived injustice ate at him for years.

© 2013 Lorenzo S


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