You’d get the call around 3:00 in the afternoon — because Frank Sinatra didn’t get up until 1:30. If you were in the inner circle, it might be his voice on the other end of the line. “What are you doing tonight? Let’s have dinner.”
If you were on less intimate terms, it would be his secretary: “Mr. Sinatra would like to know if you’re available for dinner this evening.”
There was, of course, only one reply: “I’d be delighted.” Nobody ever turned down the Chairman of the Board.
Sinatra would have turned 100 this year, and there are plenty of events to mark the occasion. An exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Artscelebrates his life with professional and personal mementos.
Next month, HBO will air “Sinatra: All or Nothing at All,” a 4-hour documentary that features never-before-seen footage of Sinatra’s performances and scenes from his private life.
One thing about that private life: Frank Sinatra never dined alone.
“He grew up as an only child, and he vowed that, as an adult, he would always have people around him,” says Mark Simone, host of WOR’s “The Mark Simone Show.”
Simone was part of the Sinatra posse in the 1980s. “If he invited you to dinner, you’d be honored. But dinner was 27 people. You’d be lucky if you were 14 seats away from him.”
Sinatra frequented only a handful of New York bars and restaurants. “He went to places where the staff would protect him,” says Pete Hamill, a Sinatra friend and author of “Why Sinatra Matters.”
“There’d be three waiters hovering. They sealed him off from the other customers, usually the guys who were stewed and wanted him to sign their ties or something.”
One thing his haunts had in common: They weren’t fancy. Sinatra hated anything over which truffle oil had been dribbled.
His last wife, Barbara, liked to go to Le Cirque. On the rare occasions she coaxed him to join her, he’d eat his dinner in the car.
And forget about celebrity hangouts. The story goes that he once walked into Elaine’s, surveyed the famous faces at the choice tables, and walked out.
Instead, you’d find him at ‘21,’ Patsy’s, P.J. Clarke’s, Rocky Lee Chu-Cho Bianco and, his favorite place of all, Jilly’s.
Owned by Jilly Rizzo, Sinatra’s closest friend, the original Jilly’s was on West 48th Street.
In the ’60s, it moved to 256 W. 52nd St., and that’s where Sinatra drank at least three or four nights a week when he was in town.
“Jilly ran it like a boot camp for diners,” says George Schlatter, the TV producer (“Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In”) and Sinatra confidant. “He gave the orders. And when Frank walked in, Jilly stood up and told everybody where to sit. ‘You — move over there!’ ‘Get up!’ ‘Get outta da way!’ ‘He’s comin’ through.’ ”
Jilly’s specialized in Cantonese food. Regulars thought Howie, the chef, made the best barbecued pork in the city. Howie worked in the basement. He communicated to the main room through a speaking tube. When Sinatra would arrive, he’d grab the tube and shout: “F - - k you, Howie!” Howie would return the greeting: “F - - k you, Frank!” Jilly’s closed in the 1980s. The building is still there, now the Russian Samovar.
‘21’ (21 W. 52nd St.) is pretty much the same as it was when Sinatra dined there at a big table in the main room. When the guest list swelled to 30 or more, he’d take a private room upstairs.
One night, Jerry Lewis was seated at the other end of the table from Sinatra. Lewis ducked out during dinner, then came back. A few minutes later, a waiter handed Sinatra a telegram: “Frank — pass the salt. Jerry.”
Anyone who made Sinatra laugh was invited to dine with him. “That was the key to being with Frank,” Schlatter says. “You had to make him laugh. It wasn’t easy, but it was fun.”
Don Rickles was perhaps his favorite court jester. Sinatra loved to recall the time he ran into Rickles at ‘21.’ Rickles was on a date. He went over to Sinatra and said, “Frank, would you do me a favor? Would you come by my table and say hello? It would really impress the girl.”
On his way out, Sinatra stopped by. “Hi, Don,” he said. Rickles scowled. “Frank, not now. Can’t you see we’re eating?”
One of Sinatra’s favorite meals was pounded veal, breaded, with a plate of spaghetti and red sauce on the side. He frequently ordered it at Patsy’s (236 W. 56th St.). It’s not on the menu, but they’ll make it for you if you ask.
Sinatra’s loyalty to Patsy’s founder, Pasquale Scognamillo, stretched back to a Thanksgiving in the early 1950s. Sinatra’s career was on the skids and he was splitting from Ava Gardner. He had no place to go on Thanksgiving, so he made a reservation at Patsy’s.
The restaurant was closed, but Scognamillo didn’t say anything. He rounded up his staff and their families and told them to show up at 3 p.m., so the place would be full when Sinatra arrived.
P.J. Clarke’s (915 Third Ave.) was the hangout of Sinatra’s arch enemy, gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen. She taunted him about his breakup with Gardner, often dangling items about others the actress was seeing. Sinatra responded by calling her the “chinless wonder,” and avoiding P.J. Clarke’s while she held court.
No matter how large the party, dinner was always on Sinatra. When he was in town, he’d have many meals at Rocky Lee Chu-Cho, then at 987 Second Ave. He usually ordered the pizza. When he left town, a couple of guys would show up at the restaurant with bags of cash to pay his bill.
After dinner, Sinatra liked to be driven around the city, pointing out to his friends significant places in his life.
At the top of the list was the Paramount Theatre (1501 Broadway), where he played his first solo concert in 1942. It’s a Hard Rock Cafe now, but the facade is the same.
After the tour, there was always time for another drink, even in the wee small hours of the morning. If he couldn’t find a bar that was open, Sinatra would head back to the Waldorf Astoria (301 Park Ave.), where he lived in a suite that once belonged to Cole Porter.
The staff had standing orders to open the bar in the ballroom at any time of the day or night for Sinatra and his friends.
“The only words he never wanted to hear,” says Schlatter, “were ‘take two’ and ‘last call.’ ”
Where to see Sinatra’s bow tie, fedora and Oscar in person
Ol’ Blue Eyes would have been 100 years old this December, but even though Hoboken’s finest is no longer with us, Frank’s fans will be treated to a number of centenary celebrations, starting with “Sinatra: An American Icon,” a new exhibit featuring rare family photos, art, clothing and much more from the Sinatra estate.
Yes, 2015 is shaping up to be a very good year indeed for Sinatra enthusiasts.
“Ninety percent of these objects have never been seen before,” exhibit curator and music historian Bob Santelli tells The Post. “A lot of it was pulled right off the wall from the family’s archive in California. Fans know Sinatra as a recording artist and performer, but the idea of this show is to shed light on the man behind the music.”
The exhibit started this week at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and runs until September.
Here are just some of the artifacts that the Chairman of the Board held dear to his heart.
Classic black fedora
The vast majority of Sinatra pictures feature him wearing a hat and, as Santelli explains, there were two simple reasons.
“One was because he was going bald prematurely, and the other was because his idol Bing Crosby wore one. As a teenager, Sinatra also smoked a pipe because Crosby smoked one, too!”
Looking the part was just as important as sounding the part to Sinatra, and he was partial to a good bow tie. But not just the garden-variety one you might get at a department store.
“Frank’s mother, Nancy, would make them for him,” explains Santelli. “They were all hand-sewn, and there are only three of these that are known to exist. The Smithsonian has two, and we have this one.”
1946 Academy Award for “The House I Live In”
The 1945 movie “The House I Live In” was barely 10 minutes long, but it won Sinatra his first Oscar. In it, he explains the virtues of tolerance to local kids terrorizing a Jewish boy.
“He would win awards for acting later in his life, but the Academy gave him this special award for helping to promote American values,” says Santelli.
“The Manchurian Candidate,” original movie poster
Sinatra famously had friends in high places. His connections to the mob were well established, but he also had the White House on call.
“Frank was very good friends with John F. Kennedy,” explains Santelli. “He produced and arranged JFK’s inaugural ball (in 1961) and they would often have lunch together. He was horrified by Kennedy’s assassination, particularly because the film ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ (1962), which he starred in, was about a Presidential assassination carried out by someone brainwashed by Communists. It was a little too close to home for Frank, and he tried to have it removed from circulation.”
It’s a little-known facet of his life, but Sinatra was just as passionate about his paintings as he was about his music. He never sold a single work, choosing instead to give them away to friends and family.
“He loved abstract impressionism,” says Santelli. “He had a studio set up in Rancho Mirage, just outside Palm Springs, and he would often dedicate and inscribe works to his grandchildren. Painting had a very calming effect on Frank.”
T-shirts worn by his grandchildren
In 1971, Sinatra attempted to hang up his mike and announced his retirement from the stage, but just two years later, the spotlight came calling again, and this time, his biggest fans were his grandkids.
This T-shirt was worn by Amanda Erlinger when she was just a child. Don’t hate; if your Gramps were Frank Sinatra, you’d want everyone to know it, too.
Sinatra’s New York Yankees jacket
Frank’s relationship with the Yankees is never likely to end.
He was buddies with Joe DiMaggio, and “New York, New York” still gets blared out at Yankee Stadium to this day, but Sinatra’s love of sports was not just limited to New York area teams. Just about everyone would try to adopt him.
“Everyone would give him jackets and hats wherever he went,” laughs Santelli. “In his collection, there was even a Florida Gators jacket and a Notre Dame cap, too. He didn’t even go to Notre Dame — he didn’t even finish high school!” — Hardeep Phull
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