Frank Sinatra Saves the Jews


Frank Sinatra and the Jews


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Frank Sinatra, Savior of the Jews

By Ronald Pies

You can croon all you want about the 50's, but mostly you'd be singing through your tuchas. For all the gray-flannel comfort you might take in those days—in the Tupperware parties, the batting blasts of Mickey Mantle, and the smiling, grandfatherly figure of Ike—you'd also have to sing about Joe McCarthy, segregated restrooms, and the Rosenbergs getting the chair.

But by 1962, things were looking up. Jack Kennedy was ruling in Camelot and Cadillacs had perfect fins. Notwithstanding the Bay of Pigs disaster, the country seemed to be gaining confidence. Even in my home town of Richfield, New York—an enclave of about 18,000 mostly blue-collar Italians and Poles—we could feel the sunshine of change on our faces. My father's furniture business was booming, my mother had just taken a new administrative job at our synagogue, and my brother Morrie was about to head off to Cornell. Even my younger sister, Lori, seemed to be settling in, after a period of nasty confrontations with my father, who had refused to let her have a dog. I was twelve years old, asthmatic, and insufferably bookish, but I was happy. I had managed to find a group of equally insufferable, bookish kids to hang around with, and—though I had yet to be bar mitzvahed—I was already eyeing college and medical school. I would never have believed, in the summer of that sparkling year, that my family would soon face the most exquisite humiliation—much less that Frank Sinatra would wind up saving our Jewish heinies.

Of course, there was anti-semitism in Richfield, and I saw my share of it at Richfield High. It came mostly from the young scions of the town's upper-crust, who regularly egged the Jewish kids' lockers, or left ominous notes in our lunch boxes. (My friend Howie Gelber was thus informed, "90% of Jewish kids go to college. The rest die horrible deaths in the locker room. Be careful, yid."). The Italian and Polish kids were greatly feared, but their attitude toward the five Jewish kids in school was one of amused, Olympian indifference: since they could kick the crap out of us with such surpassing ease, harassment was hardly worth their time.

There was, in fact, a peculiar affinity between the Jews and the Italians in our town. My father used to joke, "The Italians are one of the 12 Lost Tribes," and, "The Jews and the Italians—smothered in the same pot!" I suppose he meant that both our tribes struggled in the thick minestrone of food, family, and feelings. My father was actually good friends with Anthony Marchese, the owner of "Tony's Roman Room"—the premier Italian restaurant in Genesee County. Legend had it that Tony had built the main rotunda of the restaurant from imported Italian marble, using workmen flown in from his ancestral village in Sicily. Like Tony himself, the Roman Room was big, showy, and preposterous. Here, in tiny Richfield—home to the annual "Onion Queen Festival" and Richfield Turf Farms—you could surround yourself in an Ionic colonnade and grow fat on manicotti, serenaded by three Italian tenors in dinner jackets. Carved in Roman-looking letters on the entablature of the colonnade was Tony's motto: "It's always a beautiful day!"

All this was before the fiasco that befell my father, and which bound him to Tony Marchese in ways my family did not understand. In late November of 1962—a year before they scraped Kennedy off the seat of that big Lincoln Continental—my father's business nearly went down the toilet. Although he was good at selling furniture, Jacob Pinsky was naïve about the world of high-finance. He got involved (as my brother, the future lawyer, explained it to me) in some kind of Ponzi scheme, wherein "a fraudulent multi-level marketing program" led to my father's losing over $150,000. He did his best to keep all this from the family, but his blanched, lip-biting expression every evening at dinner told the story. Then, one night—as if a demon had slipped suddenly out of his twisted mouth—my father looked relaxed and radiant. "How would you kids like to go to "The North Pole" this weekend?" he asked, beaming, knowing full-well our reaction. (This was a sort of amusement park-cum-Christmas village, just north of Richfield, and the only concession granted the Pinsky kids, by way of acknowledging the arch-goyishe holiday).

None of us understood the nature of my father's abrupt transformation—though my mother's mirthless smiles told me that she knew something was up. But before we could analyze the situation, my family found itself caught up in a new drama: my father was suddenly charged with bringing Frank Sinatra to Tony's Roman Room.

Now, you need to understand: my father was a devoted fan of Sinatra his entire life. As a teenager, I would hear him crooning "Strangers in the Night "in the car, in the shower, and anywhere else he could get away with it. (Actually, my father had quite a decent singing voice, and had even sung once in our Temple's production of "Fiddler."). But fan or not, it was hard to figure why my father would put himself in the precarious position of trying to recruit "The Chairman of the Board"—as Sinatra was known in the early 60s, just after he started his own recording label, Reprise Records.

I say "precarious" for several reasons. First, there were the perennial rumors linking Sinatra with organized crime. "He's mobbed up, for godssake!" Herb Feigl had complained to my father, just after Friday night services at Temple Shalom. "Why the hell are you getting mixed up with this groisser gornisht, Jake?

"Don't tell me Sinatra is a good-for-nothing!" my father replied heatedly. "First of all, Feigl, nobody has ever proven that the man is mobbed up. Second of all, did you know that Frank Sinatra has spoken out against anti-semitism? Did you know that he's got a valet named Jacobs, a Jew and a Negro, no less? And Sinatra flies this man Jacobs to Israel and has him bar mitzvahed!"

The mob issue aside—and notwithstanding my father's robust defense of Sinatra—there were other risks involved. My father's devotion to this groisser gornisht goy began to generate a peculiar backlash among some of the congregants of Temple Shalom. Five or six of the older men —and Herb Feigl was clearly the ring-leader—began to speak disparagingly of my father. Coming out of services one Friday night, I overheard Feigl murmuring something to Izzy Cohen about "Jake Pinksy…Roman Room….damn toches lecker…" Since my Yiddish was not very polished, I asked Morrie, later that night, to translate for me. He shook his head from side to side, and whistled derisively through his teeth. "That's basically "ass-kisser", kid," he said. "They think Dad's an Uncle Tom for sucking up to Tony Marchese and Frank Sinatra." I didn't yet know the precise literary reference, but I knew that my father was the object of ridicule, and that my face was flushed with vicarious humiliation .

* * * * *

It turned out my father was right: George Jacobs was Sinatra's valet for about fifteen years, between 1953 and 1968. My father was also right about Jacobs' lineage: a black man born in New Orleans, who apparently had come to Judaism late in life. It seemed obvious enough to my father that the road to snagging Sinatra led through George Jacobs. There followed, inevitably, a flurry of letters and phone calls between my father and Jacobs, all in the period of a few weeks in late November. All over our house, I saw scribbled notes in my mother's hand, indicating, "George called…urgent!" or "Call back George re: time of performance." Jacobs had sent my father a glossy, autographed photo of Frank Sinatra, his arm draped around the smiling valet. Not to be outdone, my father sent George a picture of a smiling Jake Pinsky, photographed next to Rocky Marciano—a trophy from the days when my father used to hang out at Kushner's Hotel in the Catskills, schmoozing with the pro boxers. There were also calls back and forth between my father and Tony Marchese. During these conversations, my father's brow would furrow into a sort of "M" configuration, and his voice would become tight and irritable. He had a bad habit of chewing his lip when he was under pressure, and I could see him biting down hard with every call from Marchese--who, evidently, was not having a "beautiful day."

Astoundingly, by early December, everything seemed to be coming together. "This George Jacobs is a mensch," my father announced one evening at supper, slapping his hand down on the dinner table. "He's done it! Arranged everything. Old Blue Eyes is coming to Tony's Roman Room in two weeks."

Now, you can say what you want about Richfield, New York—hick-town, Podunk, glorified turf farm—but an appearance by Frank Sinatra was a big deal. The Italian community was understandably elated. Purple mimeographs went up all over town, especially on the bulletin boards of St. Joseph's Church, Cappiolla's delicatessen, Biondi's Bakery, and the numerous Italian social clubs throughout our little town. The Jews, as you might expect, were decidedly cool about the whole deal. While Sinatra definitely had his fans among our people, the whole affair had a fishy smell to it, so far as our congregation was concerned. When Herb Feigl and his cronies passed my father and me in the hallway of the synagogue, their faces bore the self-satisfied smirks of people who "knew something."

The night of December 17th arrived in a nasty mix of lake-effect snow and freezing rain. My father was decked out in a formal dinner jacket, while my brother and I wore our best suits. My sister and mother had gotten "look-alike" permanents at Betty's Beauty Shoppe, despite my sister's protestations. Even with the bad weather, the Roman Room was filled to capacity, which meant, in those benighted years, a choking haze of smoke that burned my eyes and stunk up my clothes. A lobster-faced Tony Marchese sauntered over to our table and, with a rush of whiskey-breath, crooned into our faces, "It's a beautiful day!" My father sat perfectly still, folding his mouth into a tight smile.

The opening act was a local boy, Joey Battaglia, who was only a few years older than my brother. Joey had been in "County Chorus" during his years at Richfield High, and often sang at variety shows put on by St. Theresa's Church. As we feasted on veal parmigiana, tortellini, lasagna, and meatballs, "Joey B." went through a medley of Italian favorites, ending with a schmaltzy piece Morrie immediately identified as "Nessum Dorma."

Then the waiting began. The crowd was pretty well liquored, and that undoubtedly held them through the first half-hour or so. Tony himself took the mike, and tried his hand at a few Italian jokes, most of which bombed. It was 8:45--Sinatra had been expected to take the stage at 8:00. I could see my father's scrunched up smile slowly metamorphosing into a grim-looking slit. Tony Marchese came by our table, but this time, there was no "beautiful day" malarkey. Instead, he whispered something into my father's ear that instantly drew the life force from his face. My father flagged down the waiter and ordered a martini, finishing it almost as soon as it arrived. Beads of sweat had started to form above his upper lip, which he had compressed between his upper and lower incisors.

Then the comments began—murmurs, at first, then rumblings. It was hard to tell whether they were directed at anyone in particular, or were merely the generalized ruminations of a peevish and disappointed crowd. But as these jibes became more clearly audible to me and my family, I could feel a creeping tingle on the back of my neck.

"Can you believe this crap?"

"Well, what did you expect? You know who was handling…"

"Yeah, well, ask a iarrusu Jew to deliver Sinatra, and…"

"I hear this Pinsky was hard up…made some sort of deal…"

"I paid forty freakin' bucks for tickets to this…"

"Hey, you know why Jews have big noses? Because the air is free!"

"Sinatra at the Roman Room, stu cazzo!

For continuation, go to Page Two


from the January 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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