Two weeks after President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, the next most famous man in America was suddenly caught up in another mysterious tragedy.
Frank Sinatra’s only son — who died Wednesday at 72 — was kidnapped at gunpoint on Dec. 8, 1963, in Lake Tahoe. Then 19, Frank Sinatra Jr. was held for 54 hours by a rag-tag group of men, who drove him all over California in a Chevrolet, sometimes blindfolded in the backseat, sometimes in the trunk. The kidnappers baited his famous father through a series of phone calls from gas stations, asking for a ransom of $240,000 even though the elder Sinatra had offered $1 million.
On Dec. 11 Sinatra Jr. was released. In Washington, the story was front-page news, alongside Kenya’s new independence from Great Britain, a major gift to build the “national cultural center” that would become the Kennedy Center, and the widow Jackie Kennedy’s purchase of a Georgetown home for $190,000.
The kidnappers were apprehended just days later. The ringleader turned out to be a 23-year-old man named Barry Worthington Keenan — an alcoholic drug addict and devout Catholic who had attended high school with Sinatra’s older daughter, Nancy.
In 1998 The Washington Post reconstructed the bizarre saga, through an interview with Keenan. He explained that he had convinced himself the kidnapping was an act of good will that would bring the estranged Sinatra family back together and foster a ransom that could save his own family from financial ruin. Keenan briefly entertained kidnapping Bob Hope’s son Tony, but figured that would be un-American.
“I decided upon Junior because Frank Sr. was tough, and I had friends whose parents were in show business, and I knew Frank always got his way,” Keenan told reporter Peter Gilstrap. “It wouldn’t be morally wrong to put him through a few hours of grief worrying about his son.”
In Keenan’s addled mind the kidnapping would be redemptive, for all parties. A kind of unlawful satisfaction. On Dec. 8, a Sunday night, he and a high school friend nabbed Sinatra Jr. while he was sitting in his underwear eating a chicken thigh at a Lake Tahoe hotel. The operation climaxed the next day with a phone call to Sinatra Sr., who was camped at a hotel in Reno with the FBI. The kidnappers told him to answer a phone at a Chevron in Carson City, Nev., so they could negotiate the terms of release. John Irwin, Keenan’s mother’s boyfriend, did the calling. Gilstrap’s story, published two months before Sinatra Sr.’s death, recounts the bizarre scenario:
Irwin calls the station in 15 minutes. “Is Frank Sinatra there?” The Chevron man answers — “No!” Click.
Irwin calls back a second time. “Is Frank Sinatra there?”
The Chevron man: “Listen buddy, I’m working on a car, I don’t have time to play around. Don’t call again!”
Irwin calls a third time. “Is Frank Sinatra there?”
Chevron man: “Listen, pal. Mr. Sinatra is not in the habit of taking his calls at this Chevron station!”
Seconds after he hangs up, a black car peels into the station, brakes screeching to a halt. The passenger door is flung open, a man bounds out, brilliant blue eyes ablaze. He runs up, grabs the slack-jawed attendant by the front of his shirt.
“I’m Frank Sinatra! Have I had any calls?!!”
Irwin calls one more time, a panting Sinatra grips the phone, and the conversation goes something like this:
“What do you want, money?”
“How much? I’ll give you a million dollars if you let my son go!”
“Well, we don’t need a million dollars. I’ll tell you how much we need tomorrow.”
“Can I talk to my son?”
A conversation ensues that consists of: “Are you all right?” and “Yeah.” Click.
Jazzed on Percodan, Coca-Cola and no sleep for two days, Keenan proceeds to drive back to Lake Tahoe in a rented Impala. He’s strapped skis on the roof for a winter tourist effect. He cleans the hotel room, pays up, completes the smoke screen by going skiing. Once down the bunny slope and he’s L.A. bound.
The kidnappers scattered and were scooped up by authorities soon after. After a four-week trial — during which Sinatra Jr. admitted on the stand that he hoped they would get away with it — Keenan was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He got out after only 4.5. By 1983, after life-threatening encounters with pills and booze, he had made millions in real estate. As of 1998 he was living in Texas, with a farm in Mississippi and an apartment in Los Angeles.
[Read the full 1998 story: Snatching Sinatra: The man who kidnapped Frank Jr. tells his strange saga]
As for Sinatra Jr.? Haunted by false rumors that he rigged his own kidnapping, he rarely if ever spoke of the incident. Former Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood profiled him in 2006 in Atlantic City. He was a man imbued with and haunted by the spirit of his ultra-famous father.
“I was never a success,” Sinatra Jr. told Haygood. “Never had a hit movie or hit TV show or hit record. I just had visions of doing the best quality of music. Now there is a place for me because Frank Sinatra is dead. They want me to play the music. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be noticed. The only satisfaction is that I do what I do well. That’s the only lawful satisfaction.”
Read the full 2006 story: Frank Jr., the Unsung Sinatra