- The Washington Times - Monday, August 8, 2011


By Barbara Sinatra
Crown, $24.99, 388 pages

Early autumn, 1972. We were on a winning swing through the West, with Vice President Spiro Agnew as the administration’s chief campaigner and the McGovernites on the run, hammered by speeches on Sen. McGovern’s consistent inconsistencies.

The crowds were turning out in unprecedented numbers. As even the most cynical of the journalists traveling with us admitted, those growing “Spiro Is Our Hero” rallies were not only spontaneous but indicative of a genuine political phenomenon. Agnew had come to be viewed as the “Tribune of Middle America,” “the Voice of the New Majority,” “the Scourge of the Liberal Media” - and as such, the odds-on favorite for the ‘76 presidential nomination.

It was decided that we’d lay over in Palm Springs, where the traveling staff was invited to Frank Sinatra’s home for dinner. We knew that Sinatra and our boss had become close friends, and we knew there were quarters - Agnew House - reserved for him in the compound. But being summoned to dine with Sinatra in person was enough to give even the most blase among us something very much like the jitters.

But any incipient jitters were quickly drowned by our host, who, after a quick greeting poured me a Jack Daniels, freshened his, offered me an unfiltered Camel (which in that macho period was my smoke), then proceeded to ask questions about writing and politics, told me what he thought about the media (his sentiments jibed with my boss’s) and talked at some length about the Dorsey brothers and his early days as a singer.

We continued the conversation over spaghetti, the sauce (or “gravy”) for which was made from his mother’s recipe. He talked about American literature and writers and more about music and politics. He was certain Spiro Agnew would be elected president next time around. I agreed.

Later, there was a long conversation with Jack Benny and an introduction to Barbara Marx (still married to Zeppo). We chatted, shot pool, and she offered to teach me to play tennis. At the time, she seemed to be one of those totally self-assured women, good natured and attractive, without pretense, who knew exactly how to put even the most callow male at ease. Nearly 40 years later, as this book demonstrates, she still is.

This is a womanly book, and the life she shares with us is very much like one of those great 1950s musicals - Barbara Ann Blakeley, a small-town girl from Missouri, dreams of bright lights and the big city, heads for California, discovers she has the looks and grace to succeed as a model, starts her own business, becomes a Vegas showgirl.

There’s an unwise early marriage, and she leaves to raise her son on her own. Enter the rich and understanding older man - Zeppo Marx, Groucho’s brother, offering stability and security. The marriage is safe but unsatisfying. And then, enter the romantic lead - Frank Sinatra, who with a song sweeps her off her feet, makes her his wife, and they live happily ever after until May 14, 1998, when he dies quietly in her arms.

In all, a sufficiently romantic and star-studded life for any small-town girl, populated with real-life royalty (Prince Rainier was a Sinatra drinking buddy), Hollywood royalty (John Wayne, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Clint Eastwood), political grandees (Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger, Agnew, Nixon). There’s even an audience with Pope John Paul II. But despite the bright lights, that small-town girl kept her balance over the years, maturing into an unpretentious, intelligent and perceptive woman.

Of Richard Nixon, she writes: “I always found him charming and refreshingly unshowy.” At a dinner, Nixon told her “how much he loved home-cooked food, especially beans.” She told him she shared that love. “After that, beans became our connection.” Whenever they met, she writes, he’d say, “Barbara, ‘you and I have got to go out and get that bean dinner.’ “

“Sadly, we never did.”

Frank’s “Sicilian-bred loyalty to Nixon and to his friend Spiro,” she writes, “was to prove lifelong. Even when they both fell from grace, he never deserted them like so many of their friends did. As Frank said, ‘Everyone makes mistakes - even presidents.’ “

“Mistakes, I’ve made a few,” he sang. But as Barbara Sinatra shows us, he was above all a caring and fiercely loyal man who stood by his friends, of whom he had many. And he had no better friend - nor any better companion - than the author of this smart, entertaining and moving recollection of a full and well-lived life.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).

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