The FBI's files on Sinatra: Smoke and heat, but no fire


Francis Albert Sinatra was America's consummate crooner, a natural musician of rare genius who lives on as an immortal entertainer. As actor, businessman, playboy, political manipulator and gambler, he seldom left the forefront of public awareness and influence.

Distressed by elements of that influence, law enforcement officials also kept a close and constant watch on Sinatra.

The FBI began its files on Sinatra in 1943. It kept actively compiling reports and memos on him at least until J. Edgar Hoover died in 1972. Sinatra died in 1998 at 82. A 1,275-page dossier was released by the FBI soon afterward to anyone who asked, presumably containing the bulk of its files on him.

A lot of bits and pieces popped up fairly swiftly in newspapers and magazines. Now comes an effort to tie those records together into an instructive narrative: "The Sinatra Files: The Secret FBI Dossier, the Life of an American Icon Under Government Surveillance," edited by Tom Kuntz and Phil Kuntz (Three Rivers Press, 268 pages, $14, paperback).

Phil Kuntz is a Wall Street Journal Washington correspondent. Tom, his brother, is an editor for the New York Times. They culled and arranged the material, writing links drawing it together.

What was the FBI up to, anyway?

Its first concern arose from a published rumor that the heart-throb of America's bobby-soxers had bribed his way out of the draft. This was not a trivial concern. The historian William Manchester once wrote that Sinatra was "the most hated man of World War II," for being a darling to millions of American young women while millions of young men were risking their lives fighting the Nazis and Japan. The FBI files conclude that Sinatra suffered from chronic mastoiditis and a perforated ear drum, that there was nothing improper about his draft deferment.

Sinatra's involvements with organized crime figures -- Mafia bosses -- went back perhaps to childhood. That relationship was well established by 1947, when -- already a hugely popular singer -- he went to Havana with high- profile mobsters from Chicago and New York, including exiled super-don Lucky Luciano. In 1954, he bought a two percent stake -- later increased substantially -- in the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, then controlled by Mafiosi.

Both of Sinatra's parents had been born in Italy. His father had risen to fire captain in Hoboken, N.J. His mother was active in Democratic politics and a midwife.

Sinatra grew up in the sprawling industrial suburbs in New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York City, where sometimes competing Mafia families controlled much of the activities of the waterfront, construction and labor unions. It would have been hard not to have had some connection with the Mafia culture, which in its earlier days was often as active as an ethnic solidarity and mutual protection society as it was an organized crime conspiracy.

Even before the Mafia associations became a serious FBI concern, Sinatra's political affections attracted attention. The book contains a great deal of material from California, New York and elsewhere documenting Sinatra's involvements in the 1940s and '50s with an assortment of liberal and radical groups that were listed, correctly or incorrectly, as communist fronts. None added up to anything that remotely approached espionage or close association with the Communist Party.

Sinatra seemed to enjoy appearing as a trouble-maker, a hell-raiser. The Rat Pack was his fraternity, and Sen. John Kennedy, through his brother-in-law, Peter Lawford, was drawn to it. Sinatra seemed to take delight in appearing publicly with top mobsters as well as cozying up to politicians, including the Kennedys.

When he was president, John Kennedy had a potentially disastrous sexual involvement with Judith Campbell, sometime mistress of Sam Giancana, the Chicago Mafia's top boss. Sinatra had introduced her to Kennedy.

FBI officials were aware of this through legitimate surveillance of mob figures. The files make it clear that top Mafia bosses were seeking to get Sinatra to gain them significant influence with the Kennedys. An April 24, 1963, memo from the Los Angeles Special Agent in Charge to Hoover declared: "Chicago sources have advised of Giancana's disappointment in Sinatra's apparent inability to get the administration to tone down its efforts in the anti-racketeering field."

Hoover sent a long series of memos to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, passing on the evidence of his brother's contacts and warning against them, almost certainly saving the presidency from serious embarrassment.

While the raw material in this compendium is fascinating, a substantial number of the Kuntzes' connecting passages leave questions that should be answered. All in all, it is a rather disappointing book, in part because of the authors' failure to analyze and dissect the files. It could have drawn things together more inclusively and conclusively. Its usefulness now is mostly in its very considerable entertainment value -- or as raw material for readers intricately familiar with previous work.

It's not rational to make either J. Edgar Hoover or Frank Sinatra a culture hero of the 20th century. This book does present, however, grounds for a balanced argument that Hoover's and the FBI's intents were generally legitimate.

Having digested these arguments, I've concluded that the strongest motivation in the FBI memos was preservation of the institutional well-being of the FBI itself, and in no small measure, the protection of the office of the presidency as well as the reputation of a single president.

As to Sinatra, he was a constant frustration to law enforcement investigators, who observed -- and recorded -- a great deal of his life but never could make a case.

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