Nancy Barbato Sinatra, the first wife of singer Frank Sinatra and the mother of his three children, and who remained a comforting source of stability — and home-cooked meals — for the tempestuous entertainer for decades, died July 13 at age 101.
Like her husband, Mrs. Sinatra grew up in a working-class Italian American family in New Jersey and had a strong, unshakable sense of honor. Even before their marriage in 1939, she was fending off Frank Sinatra’s female admirers, but she proved loyal in spite of the many temptations in which he indulged.
(Two mug shots of Sinatra that became famous years later were taken after he was arrested in 1938 for adultery with a married woman — a crime at the time.)
Mrs. Sinatra worked as a secretary and sewed her husband’s silk bow ties as he struggled to launch his singing career. She was skilled at cooking the Italian dishes he liked and saved money by skipping meat in her tomato sauce.
During World War II, Frank Sinatra became a singing sensation and was besieged by young female fans called “bobby soxers” wherever he went. Mrs. Sinatra, who was sometimes called “Big Nancy” or “Nancy Sr.” after the birth of her daughter Nancy in 1940, stayed largely in the background.
As her husband’s fame grew, she refined her wardrobe and hairstyle and had her teeth capped.
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“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). “He loved her meals, and he loved her, but he was elusive.”
When Frank Sinatra’s career expanded in the 1940s to include acting in movies, they moved to California. The family grew to include two more children. Fan magazines depicted Sinatra as a seemingly content family man, but he was often away from home. He did little to hide his flings with such Hollywood stars 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.
“Unfortunately, my married life with Frank has become most unhappy and almost unbearable,” Mrs. Sinatra said at the time, in one of her few public comments.
They were divorced in 1951, and within a week Frank Sinatra married the glamorous movie star Ava Gardner.
Mrs. Sinatra gained sympathy in Hollywood circles, but she maintained a low profile as she raised her children in the family’s home in the exclusive Holmby Hills section of Los Angeles.
She gave Sinatra’s valet, George Jacobs, instructions on how to prepare his favorite 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 her former husband, when his romances with other women had hit the skids.
“Her dignity,” Kaplan wrote, “was indestructible.”
Frank Sinatra and Gardner were divorced in 1957. He was later engaged to actresses Lauren Bacall and Juliet Prowse before marrying Mia Farrow in 1966. That marriage lasted two years. Sinatra was married for a fourth and final time in 1976 to Barbara Marx, the ex-wife of performer and producer Zeppo Marx.
For years, Frank Sinatra continued to drop in at his wife’s home to see their children, but 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 — known as Frank Sinatra Jr. — was kidnapped and held for ransom, Mrs. Sinatra’s home became an unofficial police and news media headquarters throughout the four-day ordeal.
After Frank Jr. was released by his kidnappers, police officers found him walking toward his mother’s house, where both of his parents were waiting.
Nanicia Rose Barbato, who was known as Nancy from childhood, was born March 25, 1917, in Jersey City. Her father was a plastering contractor, her mother a homemaker.
She was 17 when she met Sinatra in Long Branch, on the New Jersey shore. He was 18 and at the time had only aspirations toward a singing career.
In 1965, long after their divorce, Mrs. Sinatra hosted a star-studded 50th birthday party for her ex-husband at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
“I didn’t do it under the pretense of thinking he’d come back,” she told her granddaughter A.J. Lambert, 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.”
Frank Sinatra died in 1998 at 82. Frank Sinatra Jr., who spent years as his father’s music director and later toured the world under the heading “Sinatra Sings Sinatra,” died in 2016 at 72.
Survivors include two daughters, Nancy Sinatra and Tina Sinatra; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Sinatra lived for 67 years after she and her husband were divorced. She never remarried.
She later settled in Beverly Hills, where she entertained her children and grandchildren every Sunday until she was nearly 100. She always did the cooking.
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