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Doing It Her Way : Barbara Sinatra Talks of Her Life, Her Cause--and Frank

February 28, 1988|NIKKI FINKE | Times Staff Writer

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — You think you know her without even talking to her. After all, she looks like just another pampered wife flocking to this playground for the privileged.

You know the kind. The worry-free, wrinkle-free woman married to the Hollywood Living Legend, whose meticulous grooming is as perfect as a mannequin's, whose 56-year-old legs are Nautilus-toned, whose biggest headache probably is deciding which Oscar (as in de la Renta) to wear.

You tell her so. And, she agrees.

"Yes," Barbara Sinatra says. "I love being a desert bum."

The one-time Long Beach charm school teacher, Las Vegas showgirl and divorced mother landed in luxury's lap when she married the "serious" Marx brother, Zeppo, and moved here in 1963. She fell into "the slow, lazy, indulgent life" of the desert, as her good friend Dinah Shore describes it--mornings of golf and tennis (sometimes barefoot and in bathing suits), lunch at the exclusive Palm Springs Racquet Club, afternoons of gin rummy, nights spent poolside.

Her world became even more idyllic in 1976 when Barbara Marx became the fourth Mrs. Frank Sinatra--and the most anonymous.

'Weekend With Sinatras'

Then she found a way to escape that limbo known as "the wife of." She raised $2.25 million to build the Barbara Sinatra Children's Center, a state-of-the-art center for sexually abused children that opened in November, 1986, on the grounds of the Eisenhower Medical Center here. Now she is working to locate another $5 million to endow it, for which she and her husband will host a "Weekend With the Sinatras" for 25 couples in May, where for $25,000 for two, even strangers can rub shoulders with them here and in Las Vegas. And on the weekend before that, she will be the first woman ever honored by the New York Friars Club.

Of course, the mystique of her husband's name counts for a lot--as she is quick to note. But so does Barbara Sinatra's own toughness, which she developed long before becoming Mrs. Marx or Mrs. Sinatra. And which she now cleverly disguises under that honey hair and milky complexion whether she's chairing a board meeting or competing for dollars in this desert oasis already flooded with charity fund raising.

"For someone who's not very pushy," actor Roger Moore notes, "she's very good at asking anybody for anything for her cause."

How tough is she?

Well, for all of her husband's support of her cause--estimated at $250,000 in monetary contributions, plus personal appearances, singing performances and arm-twisting of his famous friends--his wife casually lets it drop that he's persona non grata at the center where molesting fathers often come for treatment.

Why? "Because my husband's from a totally different school. My husband wants to break their legs. He wants to round up all the men and break their legs," she says matter-of-factly.

She laughs and adds, "He says, 'You can talk to them all you want to, but let me teach them and they'll never do it again. If you put them in a hospital for a year, when they come out they're not going to do that.' So he's not allowed in here, you know."

But her statements don't mean that she is criticizing her husband, she says. "I just hope the day ever comes," she says softly, "when I do as many good things as he does."

She acknowledges that "there's good and there's bad" about him. "Not everybody fits into one category.

"But the ones in the press who want to write the negative things are going to write them anyway. So if you're an important name like he is, then you have to expect some of that. And your skin gets a little tougher as you grow older, but I don't think there isn't ever a time when it doesn't hurt."

After years of being influenced by her husband's contempt for the media, Barbara Sinatra nevertheless has come to realize that she now needs to publicize her cause--which is why she granted a rare interview at the center, a stone's throw from the Betty Ford Center.

So this one-time outsider who became the ultimate insider of Palm Springs society is coming out from behind the heavily guarded walls of her compound on Frank Sinatra Drive to answer questions about herself.

The former Barbara Blakeley was born in Bosworth, Mo., which she pronounces with a decided Midwest twang. "Its population is 500, and they're still there, the same 500."

When she was 10, her parents moved to Wichita, Kan., and fell on hard times during the Depression. Shy and withdrawn, she also was gangly. "I always felt like the bones stuck out. I didn't consider myself pretty at all. But I realized that the best thing I could do in life was to work as a model."

Started a Modeling Career

After graduating from high school, she moved to Long Beach with her parents, began modeling for department stores and auto shows and married a singer. (Was he good? "He thought so," she says wryly.)

At 19, she landed a coveted contract with Eileen Ford's modeling agency in New York City. But she was pregnant and returned to Long Beach.

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