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


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.



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