He had more sizzle than the president -- any president -- and he took full advantage of it in his Washington visits. The capital's provincial pundits could snicker about Frank Sinatra's unsavory friends, and the local critics could deride him as the "emaciated Romeo of the nation's juke box addicts." But at the height of the American Century, Sinatra could move the nation simply by showing up.
And from the '40s to the '80s, Sinatra was a regular visitor to Washington. Sometimes he came simply to wow his fans. Sometimes he came to lend his glamour to presidents from FDR to Ronald Reagan.
In 1944, Sinatra had tea at the White House, his first meeting with the leader of the Free World. It was one week after rival Bing Crosby had signed onto a Hollywood for Thomas Dewey campaign. Sinatra, "a 4-F on the draft rolls but ace in the hearts of his admirers," as Edward T. Folliard wrote in The Washington Post then, nearly swooned himself when he met Franklin Roosevelt, who kidded the singer about making girls faint.
Nearly four decades later, Sinatra electrified the inaugural ball for the Reagans at Capital Centre, serenading the new first lady with a version of the song Phil Silvers wrote for Sinatra's daughter, "Nancy With the Laughing Face." This time, he sang it as "Nancy With the Reagan Face" and the First Couple couldn't get enough of it.
If Sinatra did not meet FDR until 1944, the singer was already huge among Washington teenagers. In 1943, he had premiered with the National Symphony Orchestra outdoors on the Potomac Watergate steps. Sinatra would breeze through town in a matter of hours in those days, making appearances with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra at places such as the Earle Theater -- later renamed the Warner -- on 13th Street NW. The critics sniffed -- "no one has been able to hear more than two consecutive notes because of the yells," one wrote -- but the crowds went bananas.
At the Statler Hotel in those days, and decades later at the Madison, Sinatra lived like a Hoboken pasha, searching out the raunchiest saloons in town before retiring to rooms furnished with precisely the brands and amounts of booze, cigarettes and other necessities his contract demanded. No matter how naughtily he might behave, politicians clamored for the slightest notice.
In 1961, in an attempt to erase a $2.5 million debt, the Democrats turned to Sinatra's fellow Rat Packer Peter Lawford, President Kennedy's brother-in-law. Lawford helped hire Sinatra to play and produce the inaugural gala at the D.C. Armory. Only Sinatra could shut down two Broadway plays and put together a show including Joey Bishop, Harry Belafonte, Milton Berle, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Henry Fonda, Gene Kelly, Dean Martin and Mahalia Jackson.
The event didn't quite pull the party out of hock, but Sinatra left behind a taste of his kindness: While staying at the Statler, Sinatra insisted he be supplied with a new hi-fi set for his after-midnight carousing. Upon his departure, he donated the set to the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind on 14th Street NW.
On a drizzly summer afternoon in 1965, Sinatra made an appearance at Lorton Reformatory, together with Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald. "Sing it, Frankie, sing it!" the women prisoners screamed as the man drove up in a rented Caddy, mounted the inmate-constructed bandstand and launched into "I Wish You Love."
He sang over the Basie band for 45 minutes before 3,000 prisoners filed back inside, wet and silent in their dreamy satisfaction. "He's had a lot of rotten things said about him," says Eddie Gallaher, the 82-year-old dean of local radio deejays, who was there. "But he was always charitable, and that concert was very up, very bouncy."
As fond as Sinatra was of John Kennedy, he could not abide his younger brother Bobby. In 1968, Sinatra recoiled at the prospect of Bobby's winning the Democratic presidential nomination. So, one evening in May, Sinatra announced his support for Hubert H. Humphrey and adjourned to Rive Gauche in Georgetown to dine with Teamsters friends, including Jimmy Hoffa's wife -- Attorney General RFK had put her husband in the slammer. The agenda was clear: Sinatra even kissed a lady who approached him seeking an autograph on her "HHH" button.
It was, a witness recalls, a classic Sinatra night. After dinner, the group retired to a saloon on M Street, where the singer took refuge in a bottle of Jack Daniel's. And as the piano player picked out a few signature Sinatra numbers, he joined in, softly, as if to himself. The place fell silent, as patrons leaned over to hear the most precious performance -- one that wasn't.
By the '70s, Sinatra was solidly Republican, becoming a close pal of Vice President Spiro Agnew and even enjoying evenings with Henry Kissinger. Renting three suites at the Madison, Sinatra would pop into town for Agnew parties or lesser events, such as a bash for young Geraldo Rivera, then better known as Kurt Vonnegut's son-in-law than as a star of tabloid TV. Washington was, far more than now, an early-to-bed town, but Sinatra would not conform; many a night found him on a stool at a Little Tavern in Georgetown at 3 a.m., bottle of Jack at the ready.
Some of his visits to Washington were involuntary -- summonses from congressmen probing his ties to mobsters and racketeers. "I'm not a second-class citizen," he snapped at a committee investigating organized crime in 1972. "Let's get that straightened out."
If he was plain in his contempt of Congress, Sinatra was also true to his reputation around town. After Washington Post columnist Maxine Cheshire reported how Sinatra had bailed out of an inaugural ball appearance in a snit over whether a friend would be included in the talent lineup, Sinatra confronted her at the Jockey Club. "You scum, go home and take a bath," he shouted. Stuffing a couple of bills in her empty glass, he added, "Here's $2, baby, that's what you're used to."
Cheshire threatened to sue if Sinatra didn't apologize; he didn't, she didn't, and that was that. Cheshire refused to comment yesterday. Sinatra later told reporters, "It's the scandal men that bug you and drive you crazy -- the hookers, the broads of the press. . . . I once paid a broad in Washington $2, and I overpaid her."
Thanks to his close ties to Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Sinatra spent more time in Washington in the early '80s than any other period. He produced inaugural galas at Capital Centre (now U.S. Airways Arena) to kick off both Reagan terms and returned to sing in the Bush years at the Washington Convention Center. Sinatra's final local appearance came in 1994, in a sad show at Merriweather Post Pavilion. He stumbled over lyrics, missed entrances and kept repeating jokes.
Better that the close of his Washington career be remembered for his 1992 night at the opening of the renovated Warner Theatre, where he first performed half a century before. He lit one up and sang "One for My Baby." He defined a sigh with "My Funny Valentine." And at the end, though he was 76 and had hardly anything left, he pushed through one more number: "The Best Is Yet to Come." CAPTION: Frank Sinatra and first lady Nancy Reagan at a 1985 Italian American Foundation salute to the singer at the Washington Hilton. His ditty "Nancy With the Reagan Face" was a White House favorite. CAPTION: (Photo ran in an earlier edition) Frank Sinatra in 1957, when he was still a Democrat. Of course, when the Chairman of the Board came to Washington, it often seemed that any party would do.