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Frank Sinatra: A Son of Immigrants Sings America's Heart

Christine Passarella By

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Great music has the qualities we see in great men and women... simplicity, integrity, warmth and character; substance dripping with beauty. —Frank Sinatra

Roots

Sitting in my dining room, going through my childhood photos and mementos was like viewing a dream. I opened an envelope and pulled out a yellowed note in my father's sort of wild handwriting. The envelope said, written in my mother's exquisitely perfect handwriting, "Dad saved this, it's Frank Sinatra's dentist." On the card was the name of the dentist and a phone number. My mind immediately started to reflect on Sinatra's impact on my emotions throughout the stages of my life.

Frank felt like family. His phenomenal way of reaching into the roots of my Italian American family brought us cultural pride and togetherness. The day I realized Frank Sinatra was not blood-related was like finding out there was no Santa Claus!

Dining in Manhattan's Patsy's restaurant this month, I could sense why Sinatra considered it one of the best restaurants for Italian food in the city. It has a genuine atmosphere with Italian food made with dedication and passion. It is that simple, the best of being Italian American is our authentic way of living a giving life. That is what we hear in the incredible voice of the great Frank Sinatra, truth, love and deep passion. Eating my scrumptious eggplant parmigiana main course and drinking a fine Italian wine surrounded by photos of Sinatra on the wall in this legendary old school Italian restaurant, my mind once again wanted to dig deeper in understanding his impact on my life, and the way he also helped to shape America as it shaped him.

Discrimination and Immigration

Born in 1915 Frank Sinatra started singing as a child for his local community in Hoboken, New Jersey. By 1939, he would start down a path as a recognized talent working with some of the greatest musicians in the land. His romantic style made the teenage girls swoon, nicknamed the bobbysoxers. His career evolved and so did his voice which reached into the hearts, souls, and minds of women and men at all stages of their lives.

Like my dad and mom, Sinatra was born the son of Italian immigrants. His mom was from Genoa, Italy and my dad's mom was from Bari, Italy. I understand the struggles from their stories, and learned firsthand too as my own children are first-generation Italian American on their father's side. Absorbing the stories which expose the deep sacrifices immigrants in my family made for me to be secure in America moves me deeply with gratitude. In fact, Frank Sinatra reminds me of my own father in many ways. Sinatra had a sweet and gentle Sicilian father who immigrated to America. My paternal grandfather was a kind Sicilian immigrant too. Frank had a strong, courageous and adoring mother like my dad. That love and adoration showed up in Sinatra's music. He was confident, standing on a foundation created by family. My dad had that confidence too. Frank was exemplary with a belief in himself that was beyond the norm.

Natalia Garavente, Frank Sinatra's mother, nicknamed Dolly stands out in my mind. The influential Dolly immigrated to America in 1897 at the age of two. By the time she was a young woman in Hoboken, New Jersey her path was set. She became a well-respected midwife like her mother before her, bringing into the world hundreds of babies, and also helping women control their own destinies by performing safe abortions. It was a time when women were dying from illegal "backroom" abortions. Dolly provided a safe option for women. It would not be until 1920 that women would get the right to vote in America while Frank was just five years old. Dolly Sinatra was a magnificent woman, a feminist before the term was used in her community. She was also very involved with community politics and that charisma her son had seems to have come from her. Dolly helped women with safe abortions in a time when it was against the law. Radical for a woman in those times? Yes, but how do you think the great Frank Sinatra learned to live his life his way with courage and determination.

We see ourselves in Frank's courage to live life on his terms the best he could. Frank could not stand hypocrisy and lived his truth, which brought joy and a lot of pain too. He was also adored by women all over the world and admired by men. His friends say he was a tender, caring, generous and creative man. He was also a man with clear boundaries, protective of all he loved. I am sure he learned that from Dolly too.

Dolly fell in love and married Anthony Sinatra, a Sicilian immigrant, a local prizefighter. In time Anthony nicknamed Marty would become a respected firefighter and own a local saloon with his wife. Due to prejudice against Italians, the saloon was named Marty O'Brien's, as an Irish name was more acceptable for business in those times. In the book Living the Revolution: Italian Women's Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945 by Jennifer Guglielmo she writes about Dolly Sinatra, "She parlayed her social networks into local political power by the 1920s, when she reputedly ran half of Hudson County as leader of the Democratic Party for Hoboken's Third Ward."

Through Sinatra's story, I learned a history of my people that I was never taught in school. When Frank was nine years old a law was passed that would change the flow of Italian immigration. In 1924 a new federal law, the Johnson-Reed Act placed severe restrictions on Italians immigrating to America. This law drastically limited the amount of Italians who could make America their home. During 1880 and 1924 in the Great Wave four million Italians, including Frank Sinatra's parents and many of their Hoboken neighbors, left Italy for America, so did my grandparents. This Great Wave gave me the blessed gift to be born in America.

"Much more than this I did it my way, regrets I had a few, but then again too few to mention...." I listen to Frank's artistic voice and can feel my father. Sinatra's voice told us what it was like to be an Italian American man from that era. He did it superbly, as his voice told the story of my people. Sinatra's parents came with a wave of other Italian immigrants seeking a better life in America. Even before the mass immigration through Ellis Island, Italians who came here earlier were attacked for their ethnicity by other groups already here. The Ku Klux Klan spewed hatred toward Italians in the north and south. In addition, some were even hung by unruly prejudice American citizens. In the book Flavor and Soul: Italian America at Its African American Edge, John Gennari writes, "After the Civil War ended in 1865, it was largely Italian immigrant laborers, especially Sicilians, who replaced freed black slaves on sugar and cotton plantations in Louisiana, Mississippi, and eastern Texas. Many of these Italian immigrants found themselves subject to Jim Crow segregation laws and customs recently enacted by former slaveholders in an effort to preserve and augment white supremacy behind a rigorously maintained color line."

In 1891 after a police chief was murdered in New Orleans, nineteen Italian men were accused. They were acquitted. This caused an uproar and a brutal angry mob wanted vengeance. In a horrible act of unspeakable injustice, eleven of the acquitted men were lynched. Theodore Roosevelt wrote a letter to his sister referring to the lynchings, "Monday we dined at the Camerons; various dago diplomats were present, all much wrought up by the lynching of the Italians in New Orleans. Personally I think it rather a good thing..." It remains the worst single lynching in American history (read more). Southern Italians, after escaping brutality and severe poverty in Italy, were greeted with miserable circumstances too upon arriving in America. For many, their determination to make it here did not waver, so that their offspring would never have to suffer what they had to go through.

Sinatra would be aware of this racism and prejudice toward Italian Americans throughout his life. It impacted other pillars of society like Geraldine Ferraro, Mario Cuomo, and Joe DiMaggio. Cuomo was a hero of mine, I heard him speak at Brooklyn College when he was not yet New York Governor, he was running for mayor. I would later go on to meet him when he was an elder. I always wondered if he did not run for President due to the knowledge he held about the prejudice against Italian Americans. Perhaps Mario Cuomo did not want to put his family through the pain of the prejudice he knew was part of the tapestry of a country he held so dear. Frank Sinatra experienced that pain throughout his life. Sinatra told Pete Hamill, author of Why Sinatra Matters, "Half the troubles I've had were because my name ended in a vowel. They tried to put me together with all the other stuff that happened. I wasn't the only one. But there I was, up on a goddamned stage. I was pretty easy to see, a good target." The prejudice against his people gave him a deep empathy for all people who were treated unfairly, and Frank reached out to help others.

Frank Sinatra's first-generation status showed up in his style, fortitude, and a strong will to be part of the beautiful tapestry of American society. He was a patriot. He received Academy Awards, a Golden Globe, Grammys, the Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor. When he received the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, New York City's Empire State Building was washed in blue to match the color of his famous sparkling eyes. He was quite appreciative and humbled by the recognition. Sinatra was welcomed into the White House by four presidents. With all that he accomplished, he still battled anti-Italian slurs especially from some discriminating journalists who disrespected his culture.

High Art and Social Justice

In Frank's story you see the life of a man who insisted on living the American dream through incredible discipline for his art. He counted as his friends some of the most respected musicians, including Count Basie, Quincy Jones, Tony Bennett, Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Luciano Pavarotti, Bing Crosby, Tommy Dorsey, Steve Lawrence and the list goes on and on. Billie Holiday's singing moved him deeply and he was influenced by her exquisite phrasing, along with the style and sensitivity of cabaret singer Mabel Mercer. Sinatra was also a connoisseur of classical music.

Frank was dedicated to fighting racism and anti-Semitism. He received global recognition and praise for a short film The House I Live In which taught tolerance. Sinatra was at the forefront in standing up for desegregation and insisted that his black musician friends received respect at a time many were being forced to stay in segregated hotels. Sinatra performed to raise money for the civil rights movement and would go to high schools to help black and white kids get along. Saxophonist, Sonny Rollins tells a story in which Frank came to his high school in Harlem to help stop the battling between the white and black kids in the school, and soon after Sinatra's visit, the divided students learned how to see what was the same in one another, and stopped feuding.

As the founder of Kids for Coltrane-Social Justice Education Project, I am particularly proud of Mr. Sinatra because of his insistence on civil rights for all people. It was not just a belief, but the actions he took to make the world a better place. Included in his actions was amazing philanthropy often donating to help others anonymously. He was also deeply into politics lending his support to different leaders due to his love and appreciation for the United States of America. In addition, to his regular club and concert dates, Sinatra sang for veterans, children and the incarcerated.

Quality Matters

Sounds of Frank's crooning velvet voice floated through my Brooklyn childhood home every Sunday along with the smells of delicious Italian sauce simmering on the stove for hours being prepared for our family dinner. How I loved the family Sunday dinners which always brought philosophical deep conversation, along with the homemade lasagna. And surrounding the atmosphere and entering my psyche was Frank singing, "The Summer Wind," "I've Got You Under My Skin," "Send in the Clowns," "On A Clear Day," "You Make Me Feel So Young," all part of the soundtrack of my life. What would life have been without the soul touching music of the great Frank Sinatra?

The stereo would often belt out his voice, through large speakers with pretty red, green and blue lights flickering to the rhythms of the songs. My dad would relax on our evergreen velvet floral couch, custom made couch may I add, smoking his pipe, hand-carved pipe with the best smelling tobacco puffing by my little girl nose. His Italian immigrant parents worked seven days a week with no vacations to grow the Termini Bakery in Brooklyn, NY. My grandpa was working so hard he slept on a cot, not far from the brick oven, so he was always ready to bake some more bread for the neighborhood. Over time the business grew with my grandma, father and his sisters running other aspects of the bakery. With much hard work, my grandparents were able to provide a secure life for my father. My father developed style and confidence even in the face of a society that did not accept Italians. He like Frank Sinatra developed a swagger and love for the finer things in life. My father was able to take part in the American dream and enjoy the fruits of their hard labor. This way of moving through life can be seen in many Italian American homes. My dad was never impressed by the ordinary, only the extraordinary, the best, had to be the best. I watched a man work very hard and enjoyed life too. He drove a Jaguar XK120, wore only Rolex, Patek Philippe or Vacheron Constantin watches, and our family photos were taken with a Leica, Hasselblad and even a sleek Minox. In his youth, he went to New York Military Academy and Georgetown University. Extreme quality, that is what I learned from RJT. The quality of the work you do matters and the enjoyment that you allow in your life is important too.

So, upon reflection, it made sense he may have had the same dentist as Frank Sinatra. Staring once again at the yellowed note before tucking it away in a book of memories, I could imagine Sinatra and my dad RJT making small talk sitting in the dentist's waiting room to have their toothaches remedied. I can imagine the smell of lavender and musk cologne worn by two handsome Italian American men dressed as sharp as can be. I am sure that cashmere was being worn by both men.

The last family outing to Manhattan with my father was to see Frank Sinatra perform at Carnegie Hall. It was a Father's Day gift to him. We all got dressed up because that is how Italian Americans celebrate, not only through our food, dance, politics, debates, art but also in our style. We show up. My dad had a movie star style. I am sure he was influenced by the magnificent Frank Sinatra. I used to always feel I was born in the wrong era. I was raised on the films and music of my father's era, and I loved it all! It was almost surreal seeing Mr. Sinatra live, song after song brought to my heart the familiar even sitting in the majestic Carnegie Hall.

The emotions rooted in each song Frank sang were now part of my DNA since I was a baby girl. In fact, I think I could speak for many Italian Americans and say we all feel related through the music of Frank Sinatra, perhaps that extends to all other ethnicities too. Somehow all of America may be connected through the soundtrack of the longing, love, and storytelling of the master artist.

Intergenerational Connections

Frank Sinatra was a living legend with a career that touches the lives of five generations and continues, and I can't imagine he will ever go away. I was talking to one of my daughter's students, a Gen Z Italian American Adelphi University sophomore, Christina Anello. I asked her what Sinatra meant to her. She stated, "For me, the memories of Frank Sinatra come from memories with my grandfather's music when we would dance around an old-fashioned record player with vinyl albums. His music created a homey, cozy, loving feeling in my family that resonates today. I will always save my grandpa's record collection. It was part of him." Frank Sinatra would be pleased to hear Christina signed up for a spring course focusing on the history of jazz after 1950. She just finished a class my daughter teaches, entitled, "Constructions of Genders and Sexualities." Dolly Sinatra would be proud of this young Italian American who is interested in the history that created the America she now lives in. Learning about Dolly Sinatra and women like her gives Gen Z women a richer world view. Christina is focusing her academic career on learning about children and family.

During the celebration of Sinatra's 100th birthday, 18 years after his passing the world celebrated his life. I went to the extensive exhibit at Lincoln Center which had some of his possessions on display, including his paintings. Yes, Frank was a painter too! I also attended a panel discussion at Hofstra University which was celebrating his centennial year. The panel included journalist Pete Hamill who wrote the book Why Sinatra Matters. Pete stated, "Sinatra, however, did matter in other ways. He wasn't simply an entertainer from a specific time and place in American life who lived on as a kind of musty artifact. Through a combination of artistic originality, great passion, and immense will, he transcended several eras and indirectly helped change the way all of us lived." I would like to recommend Italian American podcast which brings the culture of Frank Sinatra's heritage and the importance of La Familia to the world in 2019 whose hosts include millennials, John Viola, former President of National Italian American Foundation, and Dolores Alfieri Taranto, Director of Italian American Affairs in NY Governor Andrew Cuomo's administration. Here is a link from the podcast which includes a focus on Frank Sinatra in an interview with writer Tom Santopietro. The work of Frank Sinatra continues to inspire, inform and connect generations of Americans as we move into 2020.

Home for the Holidays

Sinatra had great friends and heartfelt lovers, but he held most dear to him his children and grandchildren. He loved being a grandfather. I can only imagine how deeply Nancy and Tina his surviving daughters miss him. Their brother passed in 2016. I saw Frank Jr. perform on Long Island in 2015, his performance was wonderful and his father's love and influence were with him on that stage. Keeping his legacy alive is a high priority to the Sinatra family. Frank's daughters wrote their stories eloquently and tenderly in books about their father. Frank Sinatra, My Father is authored by Nancy and My Father's Daughter is authored by Tina.

I know that feeling of wanting to keep a grandfather's memory alive. How do I express the unique magnificence of a man my children would never meet? My dad died right before the birth of his first grandchild, my daughter. "How long do I have to live to meet your baby, Bo?" He called me Bo. Nicknames are an Italian American thing which shows affection, well in my family anyway. I told him my due date was just a couple of months away. Putting his head down he said, "I won't make it, tell my first grandchild all about me, the child will be taking my place." My father would be gone by the end of that week on the first day of winter. It was a Christmas time, and a year that I could deeply remember due to the loss of an extraordinary father and then the birth of my daughter a magnificent girl who would grow into a beauty, now a professor of women's studies. In time, I would have a second child, a wonderful son filled with the spirit of adventure. "Pop, they are truly the best," I whisper in my prayers reaching out to my father's spirit.

It is the music of Frank's soothing poetic songs that helped my children connect to the grandpa they would never meet. As in Sinatra's music, he shared the majesty of the times he lived in, and with the Italian American flair that the men of my father's generation had. His music was real, tender, masculine, and rooted in his east coast savvy upbringing, and in time mixed with the warmth of the California sun. I can't imagine how we would have gotten through this life without Sinatra's advice from his God-given voice, telling us, "all or nothing at all if its love there aint no in between," "fill my heart with song and let me sing forevermore," "on a clear day you could see forever," "I wish you shelter from a storm, a cozy fire to keep you warm and most of all I wish you love," "wait to you see that sunshine place," "more than you ever know my arms long to hold you so," "longer than always is a long long time," "once you have found her never let her go," and "Christmas Eve will find me where the love light gleams." Frank Sinatra educated America, on how to love through lyrical beauty.

The memoirs of Nancy Sinatra and Tina Sinatra make it clear that Frank was just a human being like all of us, with a God-given extraordinary talent to express emotions we all can relate to. He was a man with all the feelings and complexities of any man trying to figure this life out. He was a dad who dearly loved his children yet was thrust into a star power in which the world kept taking pieces of him for better or worse. Part of his journey was to navigate and learn from that evolution. Not always easy, but it is clear his love for his children and his mother and father kept his life grounded. I think that is what kept us all connected to Frank, not only the romantic loves of our lives entering, leaving and sometimes staying forever too, but love of mom and dad, and children, and his embrace of all humanity rang true through his magnificent ability to sing his heart with the help of incredible songwriters and top-shelf musicians.

Frank Sinatra's canon of music was so vast hitting decade after decade which impacted so much of the American culture and flowed through all of our homes in some of the most intimate moments when our hearts were pounding from the newest feelings from romantic love or breaking bread at the family dinner table. Frank was with me through all of it, and when my own dad passed away too young at 52, I listened to Frank singing, "Softly When You Leave Me" on repeat, it helped me survive saying goodbye to my dad and gave me the strength to welcome his first grandchild into this world. Perhaps that is what we hear in Frank's voice, the tenderness of our human hearts connecting to our mind and soul. Yes, Frank was singing, yet, I could feel my departed dad communicating through his voice. Frank once said he loved musicians because they are able to send their imagination up to God and come back with a song. Frank's voice brought God's love into my heart that year, there is no doubt.

So, this holiday season, I will be home for Christmas on Long Island, and at some point the music of Frank Sinatra will come out of my retro Victrola stereo in my dining room and as I serve my family ravioli, antipasti, cannoli, sip my Italian wine and continue a tradition learned when I was being shaped into the woman I would become, I will be grateful for the artful, passionate, and authentic life I live. Tradition matters, it helps this human journey not feel so scary, sort of giving us safe havens to rest our hearts in a world with so much uncertainty. The tradition gives us sanctuary, which includes listening to Sinatra.

Changes, Belief, and Hope

I think part of what I long for is having parents to embrace me and say it will all be okay. What I miss is what I had as a child when I still believed I would always have the embrace of the warmth of a home with a hearth. And I have the realization that what I had is not here anymore and never will be, but I find peace in knowing something new replaces it "time after time." We all get further and further away from our memories and must embrace change. It is very hard at times to deal with changes and shifts, but with luck we have great bounce back. Frank's soulful voice reminds us that it is all temporary and that one day we will be someone else's memory, and if we did this thing called life well, by spreading love, as the memory of our presence comes to the minds of others, perhaps when Frank Sinatra's music plays and the people we touched think of us, they will do it with joy, a smile, and a song.

Remember the best is yet to come, Frank said so, and I believe.

Photo credit: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

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