WASHINGTON -- Frank Sinatra and Kitty Kelley are at it again, locked in a bitter squabble that has all the makings of a grudge match: pugnacious, press-hating crooner vs. celebrity-stalking biographer. He sued her even before she pulverized him in print.

This time, though, their battle is being played out in the halls of the Capitol, where "Old Blue Eyes" has no shortage of fans. His admirers are rushing to honor the ailing, 81-year-old singer with a Congressional Gold Medal before the final curtain falls on his half-century career.

"It's an act of love," declares Rep. Jose E. Serrano during a break from buttonholing colleagues on the House floor. The New York Democrat has already collected about 280 of the 290 co-sponsors he needs to bring the legislation up for a final House vote. "Sinatra's music brought romance to my life," he explains.

Offering the lone public voice of resistance is Kelley, the author of the scalding best seller "His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra." Citing research from her book, she argues Sinatra is too "tainted" by unsavory ties to organized crime to receive the same medal as George Washington, Thomas Edison and Bob Hope.

"The Congressional Gold Medal is the most prestigious honor Congress can bestow," Kelley says. "I think it should be reserved for giants -- not someone whose best friends were Matty the Horse and Jerry the Crusher."

Sinatra's defenders think she's just being spiteful.

"It's sad that somebody would be so mean-spirited," says Sen. Alphonse D'Amato, a New York Republican who whisked the Sinatra medal bill through the Senate in February on a unanimous voice vote.

The senator takes quick and thunderous umbrage at Kelley's charges that Sinatra is not qualified for the medal because of his alleged business and personal dealings with reputed Mafia don Sam Giancana. According to Kelley, the two shared a mistress with John F. Kennedy while he was in the White House.

"I find that characterization offensive," D'Amato says, creating a small scene in the middle of his office. "I don't know anything about that. I think it's an easy thing to go out and trivialize those kind of things, and do great damage to people and their reputations. Obviously, Kitty, whoever she is, just doesn't give a darn. She's more interested in generating publicity."

Kelley is a Washington-based author who has made a fortune out of lurid chronicles of the lives of not just Sinatra, but Elizabeth Taylor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Nancy Reagan. She denies that either grudge or profit have anything to do with her objections to the Sinatra medal.

"Frank Sinatra filed a lawsuit against me before I even finished the book, but I'm grateful to him; he gave me a very colorful life to write about," she says in a telephone interview. "The book was number one on the best seller list and sold over a million copies."

Though she has written two essays -- published in Newsweek and the New York Daily News -- opposing the Sinatra medal, Kelley insists: "This is not a campaign. I just have a difference of opinion with Senator D'Amato."

Popularity counts

Opinion is about all that matters in the selection of gold medal recipients. There is no criteria beyond popularity. Technically, Sinatra could get one even if he'd been a Mafia don himself.

About 200 people have received the Congressional Gold Medal. The first was awarded to George Washington in 1776 for "wise and spirited conduct" in driving the British out of Boston as commander of the Continental Army. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the gold medals went mostly to military heroes.

Eventually, though, the medal evolved into the civilian equivalent of the Medal of Honor, which is bestowed only for military achievement. By the late 1800s, medals began going to philanthropists, inventors and explorers. In this century, the list has expanded dramatically to embrace scientists, aviators, musicians, artists, authors and entertainers. Among the diverse collection of Americans honored are Walter Reed, who discovered the cause of yellow fever, composers George and Ira Gershwin, Olympic athlete Jesse Owens, painter Andrew Wyeth, poet Robert Frost, civil rights leader Roy Wilkins and Lady Bird Johnson.

A handful of non-Americans have also received the medal, including Elie Wiesel, leading spokesman for victims of the Holocaust, and former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Only a few politicians have rated the tribute, among them Harry Truman, Hubert Humphrey and Robert F. Kennedy.

The most recent recipients were evangelist Billy Graham and his wife, Ruth, who were voted the honor last year.

Not all those awarded congressional gold medals have led sainted lives. In fact, a number have been quite controversial. But their dirty laundry wasn't aired before they received the medal.

Charles Lindbergh, who was honored in 1928 for making the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic, was later alleged to be an anti-Semite because of his arguments against U.S. entry into World War II.

Billionaire inventor and aviator Howard Hughes, who received the medal in 1939, led a swashbuckling and eccentric life that ended in a dark room where he lived for years as an unkempt, germ-obsessed hermit.

Even Walt Disney, honored in 1968 as the father of a beloved American empire, was tarred by a recent biographer as a bigot, heavy drinker and an emotionally unstable man.

"It's hard to live a long and prominent life without being brushed in some way by controversy," says Donald A. Ritchie, associate historian of the Senate. "There aren't that many Mother Teresas out there."

(In fact, Mother Teresa hasn't made the list yet.)

Admirers in Congress

The main requirement for getting a medal, Ritchie says, is having admirers in Congress willing to go to the trouble of getting the legislation passed. A two-thirds vote of each house is needed, and in the House all 290 of those supporters must sign on in advance before the measure can be brought to the floor for a vote.

"It's easier to get a vote on a bill applying the death penalty to 10-year-olds," Serrano says. "That would require only one sponsor."

But Serrano, 53, is just the sort of devoted fan the task requires. A Puerto Rico native who learned English from Sinatra records his father brought home after World War II, Serrano is determined to give something back to a man he says has changed his life.

"I live in the Bronx: I would have been saying 'troot' instead of 'truth' if Frank Sinatra hadn't taught me how to speak properly," he says. His record collection includes 290 Sinatra albums -- from the bobbie soxer days to the Rat Pack to "Strangers in the Night."

Serrano has never met or spoken with his idol, who has been in seclusion since his release from the hospital last winter after a heart attack. But the congressman talks at least twice weekly with Sinatra's daughter, Nancy, who has been encouraging his efforts. (Nancy Sinatra declined to be interviewed for this article after she was told it would mention Kitty Kelley. They're not on the best of terms. Ms. Sinatra once said she wanted Kelley to be hit by a truck.)

The singer has received dozens of honors and awards over the course of his long career, including a Medal of Freedom from former President Ronald Reagan, which is more prestigious than the gold medal.

But Sinatra wants the congressional medal, Serrano says, because it would reflect broader recognition than a gift from an old Hollywood pal in the White House.

"The family is pushing very hard for this," says Rep. Sonny Bono, the former mayor of Sinatra's long-time home of Palm Springs, Calif., who is working with Serrano in lining up co-sponsors.

With only about 10 to go, Bono says he is confident they will reach their goal -- despite Kelley's opposition.

But Serrano complains that the remaining votes will have to come from "people I don't know and those who have already turned me down once."

Some lawmakers just don't believe in supporting any commemorative bills. Others think Sinatra doesn't meet the test of service to the country or humanity, even though he has raised millions of dollars for charity through benefit performances.

"I think this should be reserved for extraordinary public contributions," says Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat and an acquaintance of Kelley's. Comedian Bob Hope was more worthy, Frank says, because of his many years spent entertaining troops in war zones.

In most cases, though, Serrano says the objections he hears echo Kelley's concerns about Sinatra's alleged crime ties, usually offered in joking terms.

Like Rep. Dana Rohrbacher's reference to a scene from "The Godfather."

"I refused to sign onto the bill," the California Republican quips, "and the next morning I found a horse's head in my bed."

Pub Date: 4/21/97

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad