A girl with moonlight in her eyes
Put her hand in mine
And said she loved me so
But that was once upon a time
Very long ago
It is one of my earliest memories. My family is heading home late on a Sunday night. It’s winter. My father is at the wheel, my mother beside him on the passenger side. She’s wearing a mink coat. It’s long before fur becomes unacceptable. The radio is tuned to WPAT, a station that features soft music. Sinatra is singing “Once Upon a Time.” From the back seat, my hands find the softness of my mother’s coat. The Parkway miles disappear beneath us in the cold Jersey night. The world is perfect.
A few years later she would say, “Someday you’ll grow up and appreciate good music.” By then The Beatles were here, and I was waving the rock ‘n’ roll flag high. “Not a chance,” I would reply derisively. You can afford to be smug when you’re a know nothing kid. In case I never told you, Mom, thanks, you were right again.
In the wee small hours of the morning
While the whole wide world is fast asleep
You lie awake and think about the girl
And never ever think of counting sheep
Flash forward to the ‘90s. It’s Saturday night. Date night. Now I’m in the driver’s seat, and Susan is next to me. The mellow voice coming from the radio is that of Sid Mark, with his “Saturday With Sinatra” program. Mark’s theme song is “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” and the song’s opening notes fill me with a warmth that will have to light many lonely nights when the girl leaves me for an older man who will give her the security that I cannot provide.
I’m wild again
A whimpering, simpering child again
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I
Present day. Against all odds, love has appeared again. Sinatra had his heart broken by Ava Gardner in the ‘50s. It took him a long time to get over it, and he probably never forgot her, but he didn’t let it hold him down either. Having been to the top of the world, and descended to the depths of despair, he fought his way back up the mountain. That’s what a guy from Jersey does. Spring is the season of renewal. “Bewitched,” a song of renewal if there ever was one, plays softly in the background on this early evening in May.
People become famous for all sorts of deeds and accomplishments, but to become legendary, to rise to truly iconic levels, you have to find your way into people’s hearts, and become a part of their memories. Few manage it. Sinatra did, though, and he did it with a style and a swagger that set him apart from mere mortals. And yet, he never seemed to forget where he came from. He was always one of us, always the kid from Hoboken. In the end, he was built, as we all are, out of contradictions. Strength and vulnerability. Generosity and selfishness. Grace and vanity. But above all of these, dignity, or as he would call it, class.
Frank Sinatra left this world ten years ago today. I do not mourn his death, because he is as much a part of my life as he ever was. His is the great American story, writ large across the pages of history, but for me, it’s more personal than that.
His family saw him differently of course. To them he was a father, husband, and grandfather. To commemorate this other side of his life, Charles Pignone has put together a wonderful book of photos called “Frank Sinatra: The Family Album,” (Little, Brown & Company).
Pignone is the Sinatra family’s producer-archivist, as well as a close friend. His book features photos by Sinatra himself, as well as private family photos. There are candid memories and captions by daughter Nancy, Sinatra pianist Bill Miller, and other family members and friends, as well as a moving introduction by Sinatra’s granddaughter, Amanda Erlinger. It’s a must for any Sinatra fan, or anyone who thinks they’ve heard the last word on this American life.