©2022 By Burt Kearns
I’d heard that something had happened to Frank Sinatra’s grave. That someone defaced the memorial to the most important musical artist of the 20th century. Attacking Sinatra? This was like taking a wrecking ball to Graceland. Reading about it was one thing. I had to see for myself.
I always make a stop at Sinatra’s final resting place whenever I travel to Palm Springs or any of the other desert cities along the Sonny Bono Memorial Highway. Palm Springs is about a hundred miles east of Los Angeles. The Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City is about nine miles from the center of Palm Springs, three and a half miles from the former Sinatra compound in Rancho Mirage. It’s a serene oasis of green grass and shade trees amid miles of scrub and desert stretching to the San Jacinto Mountains. From whichever direction you approach, getting there is a journey through a barren purgatory of old show business, driving along or crossing streets named for people like Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby, Fred Waring, Dinah Shore, Barbara Stanwyck, Monty Hall, and, of course, Sinatra himself.
It’s sort of fitting that Sinatra’s grave, and not one of his local watering holes like Melvyn’s or Lord Fletcher’s, is where I pay my respects. Though I’d seen Sinatra perform many times, from Carnegie Hall to the Greek Theatre to the stage monitor at the Jerry Lewis Telethon in Las Vegas, the only time we actually met, or at least made eye contact, was in a cemetery. That was in May 1990, at Forest Lawn, over the hill from Hollywood, outside the Hall of Liberty, where Sammy Davis Jr.’s memorial service was coming to a close. Sinatra and his fourth wife Barbara made a discreet exit through a side door. I, invited and on assignment, followed with a camera, and once in the daylight, a few steps behind him and setting up the money shot, called out his name — “Mr. Sinat—” and was tackled by several Forest Lawn security guards in green polyester sport jackets. As they swarmed and pushed my face into the grass, Sinatra turned his head and looked at me, through me, past me, impassive, as he stepped into his limousine. The goons held me down until the limo had rounded the corner and disappeared over the hill. Then they stood up, wiped the dirt off their hands, adjusted their jackets, and left me there.
Sinatra, with homes in Beverly Hills and New York City, had been a regular in Palm Springs since 1947, when he had architect Stewart Williams design him a midcentury modern four-bedroom house on East Alejo Road in “The Movie Colony,” where other Hollywood stars like Cary Grant and Al Jolson owned homes. That place, Twin Palms, probably had some bad vibes after a while. He’d moved in with first wife, Nancy and their three kids, Frank Jr., Nancy and Tina. Frank and “Big Nancy” announced their separation on Valentine’s Day 1950. He was an unfaithful dog, currently leg-humping Ava Gardner. He married Ava weeks after the divorce in 1951, and Twin Palms was often a battleground for two stars who coupled like nitro and glycerine. The marriage lasted officially until 1957, but by 1954, Sinatra had pulled up stakes and moved about ten miles south to a compound on Wonder Palms Road in Rancho Mirage. His career kicked up around then and his swinging lifestyle went into overdrive. Big Nancy raised the kids in Beverly Hills, and they all stayed close to their “Poppa.” That close relationship stood the many tests of time, and figures into the story of what happened to Frank Sinatra’s grave.
“The Compound,” two-and-a half acres along the 17th fairway of the Tamarisk Golf Club, included a main residence, five guest houses and ultimately a caboose where Sinatra would keep his beloved electric train set. After Ava Gardner had enough of him, this was the place where Sinatra and pals like songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen whored it up, and where he got John F. Kennedy laid while helping get him elected president. After Kennedy’s inauguration, Sinatra screwed a “John F. Kennedy Slept Here” plaque into the wall of the bedroom where JFK had screwed hookers, installed new telephones, accommodations for the Secret Service and a helipad in the middle of the circular driveway, all in expectation that the Compound would be the new Western White House. JFK’s nasty little brother Robert, the new Attorney General, changed that tune. Sinatra’s “connections” – the Mob ones that helped put Kennedy over the top – put him on the blacklist. When JFK visited Palm Springs, he’d stay at Bing Crosby’s place. Crosby was a Republican.
When Sinatra got word, he went ballistic with bipolar rage. As legend has it, He took a sledgehammer, went out to the driveway and pounded that concrete helipad to pebbles. That image offers a nice parallel to what happened to Frank Sinatra’s grave.
The night Sinatra died
When Frank Sinatra died on May 14, 1998, he was eighty-two and had been married for twenty-one years to his fourth wife, the former Barbara Ann Blakely, a showgirl from Missouri who’d been known as Barbara Marx ever since she worked her way up the respectability food chain and snared Zeppo, the “fourth” Marx Brother, as husband number two. Frank Sinatra’s daughters Nancy and Tina didn’t mind back in 1966 when at age fifty, he married twenty-one-year-old Mia Farrow. Mia was close to their age, and fun to be around. Barbara, they hated. Maybe because Barbara wanted to be known as the only Mrs. Sinatra, while their mom Big Nancy was still holding a torch and holding down the fort for her wayward man. It didn’t help when Barbara tried to get her new hubbie to adopt her adult son from her first marriage, Bobby Marx (though Zeppo never formally adopted him). “Who adopts a twenty-five-year-old man?” Tina posed the question her 2000 memoir, My Father’s Daughter. “Wouldn’t he be embarrassed? Or did he get a new name each time Barbara snared a husband?” Ouch. All relations between the Sinatra daughters and Barbara were sledgehammered the night Sinatra died. Barbara had him taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center—and did not inform Tina or Nancy. Tina would never forget. Never forgive.
My pal A.J. Benza knows the Sinatra family; was close to Nancy. “Nancy is sweet,” he told me. “Tina’s the tough one.”
To find Frank Sinatra’s grave, you drive through the Desert Memorial gates on DeVall Drive, take a left and roll slowly along the road as it loops around through the middle of the cemetery until you find the small sign that reads “B-8.” All the gravestones are at ground level, so you wander a bit under the shade trees and see who else is in the neighborhood.
Hey! There’s Jimmy Van Heusen. He’s the one who introduced Sinatra to Palm Springs, who allegedly saved Sinatra’s life in 1953 after the singer slashed a wrist over Ava Gardner. Van Heusen was born Edward Chester Babcock. He took the name of the shirt brand and wrote the music for Sinatra classics like “Come Fly with Me,” “Come Dance with Me,” “Swinging on a Star,” Love and Marriage,” “(Love Is) The Tender Trap,” “High Hopes,” “Only the Lonely,” “My Kind of Town”… the list, as they say, goes on. George Jacobs, Sinatra’s longtime valet, described Van Heusen as “Sinatra’s best friend… whore wrangler… decadent womanizer, an Olympian boozer, a war hero, a daredevil pilot…role model for the swingin’ music man that Frank would become.”
Jacobs wrote in his book, Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra, that “Chester the serial Playboy and sex addict had succumbed to monogamy in his late 50s.” His bride, Bobbe, formerly of the singing Brox sisters, is buried beside him. Bobbe’s gravestone says she’s “Forever Singing in the Rain (she and her sisters were among the first to introduce the song in 1929). Jimmy is “Swinging on a Star.”
Working up a row toward Sinatra, you’ll find Broadway musical composter Frederick Loewe. Among the songs that Loewe wrote with Alan Jay Lerner was “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” that creepy number about an underage prostitute that Maurice Chevalier sang in Gigi. Loewe’s maker says “Thank heaven for Frederick Loewe, World Beloved Composer.” He’s not far from two Gabors – not the famous ones, but sister Magda and mama Jolie.
The Sinatra Row
That gets us to the Sinatra pack. Jilly Rizzo, immortalized as “Sinatra’s right-hand man” is six graves to the left of his pal. His marker notes that “He was the best.” According to George Jacobs, Jilly was “a saloon keeper… the owner of a nondescript bar in New York’s theatre district that had one unusual distinction: it served Chinese food, perhaps the worst Chinese food in New York… Mr. S thought it was magnificent, the franks and beans of the mysterious East… Jilly was a short, squat, square guy, but he was tough as nails, with a temper as quick and violent as Mr S’s.” You can see Jilly as a bartender in the Sinatra movie, The Detective. In Rancho Mirage, Jilly lived across the golf course from Sinatra. On May 5, 1992, he was all excited, cooking up Italian sausages for a big party in his backyard to celebrate his 75th birthday the following day. He expected at least eighty people, including the Sinatras, to show. A little after midnight, he got into his white Jaguar to drive to his girlfriend’s house. where he was going to spend the night. Jilly was crossing Gerald Ford Drive when his car was hit head-on by a drunk in a Mercedes. Jilly’s Jag burst into flames. The other driver got out of his car – and ran away on foot while Jilly burned up like an Italian sausage.
Down the other end of the row, three graves to Frank’s right, is Anthony Martin “Marty” Sinatra, his dad the fireman. Marty was seventy-four when his heart stopped in 1969. Alongside Marty is his wife Natalie. Frank’s mother was powerful political figure when he was growing up in Hoboken, New Jersey. Everyone knew her as “Dolly.” Her side hustle, running a backroom abortion service, led to the nickname “Hatpin Dolly.” After Marty died, Frank brought Dolly, kicking and screaming, to the desert, and brought her a big luxurious house next door to the Compound. She wanted to stay in Jersey. George Jacobs observed that “the only thing Dolly hated more than California was Barbara” – especially after her son took Barbara as his fourth wife in 1976. In January 1977, when Sinatra invited Dolly to Las Vegas to him perform at the Circus Maximus showroom in Caesars Palace, she refused to fly on the same plane with her new daughter-in-law. So Sinatra chartered Dolly a Lear Jet. At showtime on January 6, he was worried because she hadn’t arrived. He opened with “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and found out after the show that the jet carrying Dolly and three others had, shortly after takeoff in Palm Springs, smashed into a mountain. She was eighty.
Between Dolly’s grave and Frank lies Vincent Mazzola. Vincent who? Vincent was Frank’s uncle, a World War I veteran who’d lived with the Sinatras since the 1920s in Hoboken. Vincent was, how do you say in Italian? Citrullo. A simpleton. Not all there in the head. He died at in 1973, seventy-nine, and he sleeps between Dolly and Frank, probably the way the way he did in the small flat in Hoboken.
There they were. That’s life. One big happy family, with grave markers reflecting a common theme. Marty’s read ‘BELOVED HUSBAND AND FATHER,” Dolly was “BELOVED WIFE, MOTHER, GRANDMOTHER AND GREAT GRANDMOTHER.” Frank was “BELOVED HUSBAND AND FATHER,” under the headline, “THE BEST IS YET TO COME.” For years, that was the line-up when I’d show up, stand over Sinatra’s grave and spend a few minutes reflecting on the approaching September of my own years. Some people left Jack Daniels bottles, pennies, or dimes on the marker – Frank’s daughter Tina says she slipped ten dimes into his pocket when he was in the coffin. Sinatra always kept ten dimes in his pocket in case he needed change for a payphone. That went back to 1963, when Frank Jr. was kidnapped and Sinatra relied on payphones to contact the abductors. Tina said she also slipped something else into her dead father’s pocket: a note.
Barbara Sinatra showed up some years after I began to visit Frank Sinatra’s grave. She died in 2017. She was ninety— impressive, but Big Nancy hung in and survived her by almost a year. She died at 101. Barbara, buried to the right of Frank, joined the family tradition, listed on her marker as “BELOVED WIFE, MOTHER & GRANDMOTHER.” She also gave herself a headline above her name – and not “Gold Digger” or “Former Showgirl.” Frank may have been “The Voice,” but Barbara was “A VOICE FOR CHILDREN.” Well, certainly not Frank’s children.
“The Mystery of Frank Sinatra’s Grave”
Then came COVID. I hadn’t visited Palm Springs or Desert Memorial Park in about a year when I’d heard the rumor that something had happened to Frank Sinatra’s grave. What had happened was suddenly “The Mystery of Frank Sinatra’s Grave.” At least that was the headline almost exactly a year ago, when the story was published in Palm Springs Life. While well-placed in one of the best of the city-dedicated magazines, David Lansing’s investigative piece would have fit comfortably in Vanity Fair or GQ, and deserved to be picked up nationally. Lansing wrote that he, too, would make it a point to stop by Sinatra’s grave — only, being a resident of Palm Springs, he’d visit on his way out of town. It was in January 2001 that he saw that the familiar headstone, the one that read “The Best Is Yet to Come,” had been replaced. Now, it read simply, “Francis Albert Sinatra, 1915-1998,” and at the center: “Sleep Warm, Poppa.” Curious, as one would be, Lansing phoned the cemetery district manager to ask why the marker had been changed, and who changed it. The manager told him she couldn’t divulge any details. “I don’t want to get in the middle of what happened,” she said, and suggested he talk to daughters Nancy and Tina Sinatra.
When Lansing followed up with a Freedom of Information request with the Cathedral City Police Department, the police provided a report that was redacted. All he wanted to find out was who changed Frank Sinatra’s gravestone, who authorized it, and when. Tina and Nancy Sinatra ignored his requests for comment. Their kids wouldn’t comment, either. When Palm Springs Life sent an official request for the public records, the cemetery district manager replied that the information was on a need-to-know basis, and they didn’t need to know.
Lansing did his research, and found the backstory of the bad blood between Barbara and Sinatra’s daughters. And then came that classic journalistic twist: the Deep Throat tipster. Lansing wrote that he received “a somewhat cryptic note from someone who has been connected to the Sinatra family for over 45 years and knows, literally, where all the bodies are buried.” The source told him that the defining incident took place over the Thanksgiving weekend 2020. In the dead of night during the holiday when families gather and give thanks, someone hopped the wall of Desert Memorial Park, found Frank Sinatra’s headstone and attacked it, chipping away at the granite, maybe with a hammer and chisel. Banging and breaking it up the way Sinatra had destroyed the helipad sixty years earlier, the perpetrator left the headstone defaced and destroyed. But not all of it. Where it had said “Beloved husband and father,” the word “husband” had been obliterated. The headstone had to be replaced. That’s the story. No names. No finger-pointing. That’s all you need to know.
Frank Sinatra’s new headstone was simple. Now, as he had in life, Frank Sinatra stood out from, yet at the center of the family. Simple: name, dates, and “Sleep Warm, Poppa.” Sinatra would be remembered not as a husband and father, but simply a father. Sleep warm, Poppa. The note that Tina Sinatra had placed in her father’s casket read: “Sleep warm, Poppa – look for me.”
So there it was. Standing over Sinatra’s grave, his new grave, a few weeks ago, taking photos to replace the old ones, regarding the new headstone, it came to me that “Sleep Warm, Poppa” just might be a better epitaph than “The Best Is Yet to Come.” What best? One reason Sinatra’s voice and influence resonates beyond his generation and into another century is that he lived for the day. He played hard, he stayed up late. He didn’t hold back in anticipation of some best-is-yet-to-come afterlife. He had little faith in “the hereafter.” Sinatra knew it. Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Davis Jr. knew it. The best is now. Sleep when you’re dead. So sleep warm, pally.
Burt Kearns produces nonfiction television and documentary films. He wrote the book Tabloid Baby and cowrote The Show Won’t Go On. His book, Lawrence Tierney: Hollywood’s Real-Life Tough Guy, will be published on November 29 by the University Press of Kentucky and is available for pre-sale on Amazon.com.