Long before she became a successful model, long before she met Frank Sinatra at the height of his career, married him, took his name and tamed him, Barbara Blakeley grew up “broke” in Bosworth, a Missouri town of fewer than 500 people.
Her father, Willis, had survived World War I, and he planned to outlast the Great Depression as well — and to help others weather it. The small town’s residents couldn’t afford the coffee, meat, shoes, horse feed and other supplies the family sold at Blakeley’s General Store. So Willis began accepting IOUs, which he fell asleep counting each night.
But his family was broke.
They grew and raised their own food, and many nights Willis and his wife, Irene, would forgo eating so the children could. Barbara and her siblings’ toys were “made from offcuts of wood,” and her clothes were pieced together on her grandmother’s Singer sewing machine “and patched as they wore out,” she wrote in her memoir, “Lady Blue Eyes: My Life With Frank.”
That poverty informed her life, even as she entered the glitzy world accessible only to the upper echelon of Hollywood.
Barbara Blakeley died Tuesday as Barbara Sinatra, having been guided for much of her 90 years by the experiences of her first 20.
She drew strength from growing up in poverty, which she found useful while breaking into the modeling business.
Once, still poor and with no modeling experience, Barbara walked up three flights of stairs to a hotel suite for one of her first auditions. When the two men in the room asked her to lift up her skirt, she realized this was no audition, shoving them out of the way and fleeing the room.
That strength also helped her tame the famously hot-tempered Frank Sinatra.
“Sinatra’s character flaw isn’t hard to name. He lived in daily fear of humiliation, and in its (often imagined) presence his temper tipped over in an instant,” Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker. Furthermore, “Sinatra beat people up, or had others beat them up for him, often in shameful acts of bullying.”
And Barbara would have known it. When she was a teenager, she developed an obsession with Ol’ Blue Eyes. Every Saturday night, she was sure to turn on the radio and tune into “Your Hit Parade,” a show featuring Sinatra. Though generally thrifty, she purchased all of his 78 RPM records.
Her worship of Sinatra did not stop her from blowing him off the first time they met, after he was too aggressive. As The Washington Post’s Matt Schudel wrote:
They had their first encounter in 1957, when she was working at the Riviera casino in Las Vegas. Sinatra, at the height of his fame, was at the bar with Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and other members of his fabled Rat Pack.
“I heard someone say, ‘Hey, Blondie! Come over here. Join us!’ ” she told the Telegraph newspaper of London in 2011. “But I just kept walking. One of the girls with me said, ‘Do you know who that was? That was Frank Sinatra.’ And I said, ‘I don’t care, I don’t want to deal with drunks.’ So we left.”
More important, though, growing up with nothing helped her find her calling.
She pulled herself from poverty after World War II, when she was accepted into the Robert Edward School of Professional Modeling in Long Beach and became queen of the Belmont Shore pageant. From there, she answered the alluring call of New York City modeling jobs with big-time publications such as Vogue and Life.
Eventually, she became a showgirl in Las Vegas and married Zeppo Marx of the Marx Brothers comedy team, which embedded her in the lives of the rich and famous.
Money was no longer a problem. But there was an emptiness to it all. Her childhood in Missouri had instilled in Barbara a desire to help others, and now she finally could.
She found herself “wanting to give back,” USA Today reported.
She began doing charity work, often with Nelda Linsk, a friend she met at the Racquet Club, an exclusive California tennis club populated by celebrities like Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe and Dinah Shore.
“We were on different boards together,” Linsk told USA Today. “Florence Swanson was a trustee for Eisenhower Medical at Eisenhower Medical Center and they were building Collector’s Corner. So she called Barbara and asked if we would co-chair a fashion show. So we did that. That was kind of the beginning of our charity work.”
Eventually, she and Marx divorced and she married Sinatra, with whom she had shared a years-long friendship.
With access to Sinatra’s money and his laundry list of celebrity friends who would happily do him a favor and appear at a charitable event, her philanthropy soared.
But it wasn’t until 1985 that she found her singular cause.
She had been playing tennis with Barbara Kaplan, whom she met at the Racquet Club, for some time when Kaplan approached her about a charity she was trying to establish. Kaplan was a counselor who worked with abused children, but she and her colleagues “had no central base and were forced to give therapy sessions to victims wherever they could find a space — in vacant offices, the basement of banks, or the back rooms of churches,” Barbara Sinatra wrote in her memoir.
And even then, they couldn’t afford the $30,000 a year the operation cost to run.
Barbara wasn’t interested, though, telling her, “Child abuse doesn’t happen to anyone I know. I don’t have a connection with this at all.”
Kaplan, however, kept pushing until the Sinatras rounded up several of their friends and held an art auction for it.
At the auction, they pushed the price of each piece as high as it could go. Sinatra sat behind his good friend Don Rickles. At one point a piece Rickles dearly wanted came on the block.
“What Rickles didn’t know was that every time he put up his hand to place a bid, Frank would raise his hand behind him to place a higher one,” Barbara wrote. “Don finally got the painting when Frank stopped bidding, but our comic friend never realized how the price had been bumped up.”
They raised more than $60,000, and the “clever” Kaplan arranged for Barbara to meet the children who would be helped.
“Coming face-to-face with those innocent little children who had been so mistreated tore my heart out,” Barbara wrote. “That’s when I knew I had to get more involved.”
The next year, she opened the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center, which she called in her memoir “a project very dear to my heart that has continued to be the focus of my life.”
Perhaps remembering her father accepting the IOUs during the Great Depression, she insisted no child would ever be turned away simply because he or she couldn’t afford it — but upholding this standard wasn’t easy.
At first, she pushed on Sinatra for the necessary funds. She had always been strong-willed with Sinatra. Before they were married, for example, the two were together in Lake Tahoe. She gave him an option: propose or lose her. He refused, and she immediately flew back home, forcing the stubborn singer to track her down and slide a ring on her finger.
And she continued to sneak cigarettes, despite his pleas for her to quit.
“If he ever caught me with a cigarette, he was quite rough on me,” she said. “But he rarely yelled at me because I was one of the few who’d yell back.”
This was no different: Barbara Sinatra got what she wanted.
“Frank would come over and sit and read to the kids,” John E. Thoresen, director of the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center, told the New York Times. “But the best way she used Frank was she would say, ‘I need a half-million dollars for this, so you do a concert and I get half the money.’ ”
Still, it wasn’t enough. So she started the Frank Sinatra Celebrity Invitational Golf Tournament, which included parties planned by none other than Linsk.
The annual celebrity tournament continues to this day, helping fund the center, helping improve the lives of abused children.
“In the years since,” the New York Times reported, “more than 20,000 children have been treated at the center, in Rancho Mirage, and hundreds of thousands more throughout the world through videos it provides.”
“What I began all those years ago and what Frank wholeheartedly supported has helped so many children recover from the most heinous of crimes and given them the opportunity to go out into the world with a restored sense of trust and purpose,” Barbara wrote, adding a dash of optimism.
“Long may it continue.”
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