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His Way

THE SINATRA FILES The Secret FBI Dossier Edited by Tom Kuntz and Phil Kuntz; Three Rivers Press: 268 pp., $14 paper

October 08, 2000|JON WIENER | Jon Wiener is the author of "Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files."

Fans have long known that Frank Sinatra had been active in left-wing politics in the late 1940s, but until his FBI file was released in 1998, we didn't know that he had offered to be a fink, a squealer, a stoolie--that he wanted to rat on his left-wing friends to the FBI.

The man who claimed that loyalty to friends was his deepest value--who stuck by the disgraced Spiro Agnew when no one else did--asked for an appointment with J. Edgar Hoover in 1950. A memo in the Sinatra FBI file quotes an intermediary--whose name is blacked out--saying the singer wanted to clear his name of "allegations" that he associated with "subversive elements." Sinatra, his representative said, wanted Hoover to know that he would "go anywhere the Bureau desires and contact any of the people from whom he might be able to obtain information," that he was "willing to do anything even if it affects his livelihood and costs him his job."

Sinatra's motivation: to revive his career, which was in ruins in 1950 after widespread charges that he was a pinko, a "fellow traveler on the road to red fascism," as a columnist for the Hearst press called him. "The Sinatra Files" includes 50 pages on "Sinatra and Communism"--a big topic not just for the FBI but for the press in the late '40s. In 1945, when he was thin and 30, Sinatra won a special Academy Award for "The House I Live In," a short film in which he told a gang of street-corner kids that racial and religious differences "make no difference except to a Nazi or somebody who's stupid." In the film, he sang about "The people that I work with/The workers that I meet. . . . The right to speak my mind out/That's America to me." The song "The House I Live In" was written by a leftist, Earl Robinson, and the film was directed by one of the Hollywood Ten, Albert Maltz--as the FBI noted. For the FBI, this alone made Sinatra suspect.

In 1947, Sinatra went one step further: He published an open letter to Henry Wallace in the New Republic, urging him to run for president to "take up the fight we like to think of as ours--the fight for tolerance, which is the basis of any fight for peace." His support for Wallace in 1948 was equated by the FBI with Communist sympathies.

The Cumulative Index to Publications of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, the place to go to find the names of everyone named in 20 years of HUAC hearings, indicates that in the eight years following "The House I Live In," Sinatra was named as a communist 12 times. The FBI carefully noted each of these. It was also feeding material to the media; the Hearst press was particularly vitriolic, especially columnist Lee Mortimer. After Sinatra punched him in Ciro's nightclub in Hollywood, the writer got a meeting with Clyde Tolson, Hoover's right-hand man; an FBI memo, reprinted in this volume, documents the way the FBI gave Mortimer derogatory information on Sinatra. But it wasn't just the Hearst press that went after him: the New York Times index for 1949 contains an extraordinary entry: "Sinatra, Frank: See U.S.--Espionage."

Sinatra, the working-class Italian kid from Hoboken, fought back against the blacklist that was threatening his career and those of his friends. The FBI noted one of his most famous statements of this period, in response to the 1948 HUAC hearings in Hollywood: "If you make a pitch on a nationwide network for a square deal for the underdog, will they call you a Commie? . . . Are they gonna scare us into silence? I wonder."

Then came the period the pundits called "Frank's big nose dive." Columbia Records asked Sinatra to give back his advance on future recordings; MGM released him from his film contract; he was fired from his radio show; and MCA, his agent, dropped him. His career, like those of so many other victims of McCarthyism, was in ruins. It was at this point, we now know, that Sinatra conceded that they had him beat and sent his friend to ask for a meeting with Hoover.

The FBI's response is revealing. At the bottom of the memo--reproduced in this volume--are two handwritten notations: the first, from Tolson, who wrote to Hoover: "We want nothing to do with him," followed by one in Hoover's own handwriting: "I agree. H."

This is the most interesting of the 1,275 pages that appear in Sinatra's FBI file. The raw FBI file itself--I've got my own personal copy--is immensely repetitive, disorganized and hard to follow. In contrast, the book edited by Tom and Phil Kuntz makes for good reading. (Tom is a New York Times editor; Phil is a Wall Street Journal reporter.) They have selected the most significant documents, organized them topically and introduced the documents with excellent headnotes, drawing on the work of Sinatra biographers ranging from daughter Nancy to Kitty Kelley.

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