A.K.A. Frank Sinatra

By Jeff Leen
Sunday, March 7, 1999

It began with a sound.

On August 13, 1943, a letter from San Jose arrived in Washington. The letter writer, whose identity remains a government secret, was worried about a sound that had come over the radio.

"Dear Sir:

"The other day I turned on a Frank Sinatra program and I noted the shrill whistling sound, created supposedly by a bunch of girls cheering. Last night as I heard Lucky Strike produce more of this same hysteria I thought: how easy it would be for certain-minded manufacturers to create another Hitler here in America through the influence of mass-hysteria! I believe that those who are using this shrill whistling sound are aware that it is similar to that which produced Hitler. That they intend to get a Hitler in by first planting in the minds of the people that men like Frank Sinatra are O.K. therefore this future Hitler will be O.K."

On September 2, the letter writer received a reply:

"I have carefully noted the content of your letter and wish to thank you for volunteering your comments and observations in this regard."

It was signed, "Sincerely yours, John Edgar Hoover, Director."

The FBI director's response was not merely a polite bow to wartime hysteria. His bureau used the letter about a bunch of girls cheering to open file #62-83219 "for the purpose of filing miscellaneous information" on a subject the bureau would refer to over the next 40 years as "Francis Albert Sinatra, a k a Frank Sinatra."

The letter about the shrill whistling sound sits at the bottom of a stack of paperwork now publicly known as Frank Sinatra's FBI file. The file is six inches thick, 1,275 pages long. Actually, it's a collection of files, released in a one-day blaze of publicity last December in response to Freedom of Information Act requests by 30 news organizations after Sinatra's death in May. The files, taken together, form a peculiarly American time capsule.

Spanning five decades, the documents detail the curious and complex relationship between the nation's greatest entertainer and its most powerful law enforcement agency. Born in suspicion and contempt, this relationship proved to be protean and became unexpectedly intimate -- a dance of interdependence. In a strange way, Sinatra and Hoover's FBI needed each other. Sinatra gave the FBI what every law enforcement agency needs to stay engaged and in business: a threat that must be tracked. The FBI gave Sinatra what every celebrity needs: protection from lunatics and extortionists. In Sinatra and Hoover, popular culture met the politics of fear.

The files tell the story of a man who appeared, to the FBI of the 1940s, as a rare triple threat, a growing menace socially, politically and legally: Sinatra was a crooner who was corrupting America's virginal (if "moronic," in Hoover's judgment) bobby-soxers. He was a fellow traveler who crusaded for racial tolerance and consorted with Communist fronts. He was a mob associate who tantalized the feds with his comings and goings among the criminal elite.

A subject with such a resume was unusually qualified to lead the FBI into the maze of postwar America. Sinatra would become, in journalist Pete Hamill's words, "the most investigated American performer since John Wilkes Booth." The Sinatra files offer a secret history of the American Century.

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