The Washington Post Magazine
A K A Frank Sinatra
The FBI kept tabs on him for 40 years, through his days as a heartthrob, a do-gooder, an associate of the Mob and a pal to the president. Reading the bureau's files is like reading into a secret history of the American Century.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 7, 1999; Page M6
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.
"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 résumé 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.
Although the bureau's concerns over Sinatra and bobby-soxers and Communists faded by the end of the 1940s and '50s, respectively, its obsession with the mob remained. The FBI could never prove anything criminal against Sinatra, but Sinatra could never remove the stain of guilt by association. The standoff only fattened the files.
In American Tabloid, the hard-boiled novelist James Ellroy explores a fictitious America seething with corruption and conspiracies and sex and celebrities. The Sinatra files cover the same turf, but with real-life characters doing real-life things. Walter Winchell and Lee Mortimer dig and dish dirt. Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen take care of business. John F. Kennedy parties. Judith Campbell dials the most interesting phone numbers. Even oft-told tales such as Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio raiding the wrong Hollywood apartment in 1954, looking for dirt for DiMaggio's divorce from Marilyn Monroe have a startling quality because of the names attached to them.
But in the story that emerges from the files, the big names make only fleeting appearances, like guests glimpsed at a cocktail party. There are really only two lead characters: Sinatra and the FBI, as personified, memo to memo, in the flat prose of bureau men like J.P. Mohr, Clyde Tolson and Hoover himself.
The files are filled with rumor, gossip, innuendo and raw intelligence much of it unverified from a variety of informants and sources, a surprising number of which are simply newspaper clippings. The information is sometimes contradictory, and rife with dated references to the "Negro Question" and "subversives" and crimes like "pandering" and "seduction." The story lines are maundering and often mundane, filled with non sequiturs and unintentional comedy ("Sinatra denied he sympathized with Lenin and the Marx brothers").
When the files were released, the instant headline was that they contained no bombshells. Still, the mass of black-and-white documents gives off a hard, cold light that brings out the fine-grained details of a life lived. In 1966, for example, a Washington PR man appeared at the Pentagon, saying Sinatra had hired him to "determine the identity of the 'S.O.B.' who 'tagged' Sinatra as a 'commie' " in the '40s. Why, the PR man was asked, did Sinatra care after all these years? The PR man replied: "Sinatra is a very temperamental, vindictive and moody individual and has periods where he dwells on his past life," the FBI files say. Is there a more succinct summary of Sinatra in the September of his years?
Reading the files is an exercise in grand irony and lost idealism. You can follow along as the archconservative cop tracks the ultraliberal entertainer. You can watch Sinatra, chastened by events, edging closer and closer to the cop. You can see Hoover coming in to block an ill-conceived wiretap plan that might have ensnared the singer (and, possibly, the president of the United States). Through a pile of federal paperwork, you can peer into one man's private life, and see how the other managed his agency's secrets.
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