Frank Sinatra's first wife did it her way

Mrs Nancy Barbato Sinatra
Mrs Nancy Barbato Sinatra

NEW YORK • He married Hollywood bombshell Ava Gardner just 10 days after divorcing his first wife.

But Mrs Nancy Barbato Sinatra (above) remained a comforting source of stability for the tempestuous entertainer, who had a keen eye for women, for decades.

Last Friday, she died at age 101.

Even before their marriage in 1939, she was already fending off his female admirers.

She worked as a secretary and sewed his silk bow ties as he struggled to launch his singing career.

During World War II, as he became a sensation, she refined her wardrobe and hairstyle and had her teeth capped.

"She did everything she could to hold him - cooked him spaghetti just the way he liked it, baked him lemon-meringue pies," biographer James Kaplan wrote in Frank: The Voice (2010).

When his career expanded in the 1940s to include acting, they moved to California. Fan magazines depicted him as a family man, but he was often away from home.

He did little to hide his flings with Hollywood stars such as Lana Turner, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe and Angie Dickinson.

"The more famous Frank Sinatra got," Kaplan wrote, "the more women there were who wanted to go to bed with him and he saw no reason not to oblige as many of them as possible.

"Covering up the evidence was rarely his first priority."

The couple separated briefly in 1946 and again, for good, in 1950.

After their divorce was formalised the next year, she gave his valet instructions on how to prepare his favourite foods, such as pasta, roasted peppers, scrambled-egg sandwiches and steak, which he liked pounded flat.

She also took phone calls in the middle of the night from Sinatra, when his romances with other women hit the skids.

His marriage to Gardner ended in 1957. He was later engaged to actresses Lauren Bacall and Juliet Prowse before marrying Mia Farrow in 1966. That marriage lasted two years.

He was married for a fourth and final time in 1976 to Barbara Marx, ex-wife of performer-producer Zeppo Marx.

For years, Sinatra continued to drop in at his first wife's home to see their three children.

He often arrived unannounced, lighting a fire in the fireplace, staying for a home-cooked meal and sleeping on the couch.

In 1963, when their son Franklin was kidnapped and held for ransom, her home became an unofficial police and news media headquarters throughout the four-day ordeal.

After he was released by his kidnappers, police officers found him walking towards his mother's house, where both his parents were waiting. A ransom of US$240,000 was paid.

In 1965, long after their divorce, she hosted a star-studded 50th-birthday party for her ex.

"I didn't do it under the pretence of thinking he'd come back," she told her granddaughter, who wrote about the party in Vanity Fair in 2015. "It's just that we had a nice association and I wanted to keep it that way."

Sinatra died in 1998 at 82 after a heart attack, while she never remarried, focusing on charity work.

Just like what he sang in his famous 1969 song, she did it her way.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 16, 2018, with the headline 'Frank Sinatra's first wife did it her way'. Print Edition | Subscribe