Few people ever saw Frank Sinatra’s sensitive side, complained his ex-wife Mia Farrow. She called it the ‘wounding tenderness’ — so deeply felt it hurt him to express it — which only came out publicly when he sang. He had also, the actress gushed, a ‘child’s sense of outrage at any perceived unfairness and an inability to compromise’. It was this ‘powerful sense of Sicilian propriety’, as she carefully termed it, that landed him in fights. And it may, a new book reveals, have prompted what must be one of the most shocking episodes in the singer’s turbulent life.
Twenty-four years after their unhappy two-year marriage ended, Farrow turned to Sinatra — who remained a close friend — in 1993 after discovering her boyfriend, Woody Allen, was having an affair with her young adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn.
Farrow was involved in a vicious custody battle in which she accused the filmmaker of sexually abusing another of her adopted daughters, seven-year-old Dylan. The controversy continues to this day, with Allen denying the adult Dylan’s allegations that he abused her.
Sinatra’s solution, it is now claimed, certainly showed off that ‘Sicilian propriety’. He tried to have the Oscar-winning director of Annie Hall rubbed out by the Mafia.
The allegation was made to David Evanier, author of Woody, a new biography of the actor and director.
It has long been rumoured that Sinatra had threatened to punish Allen over his treatment of his ex-wife. Farrow testified in 1993 that she had told a therapist one of her ex-husbands had offered to break Allen’s legs.
Farrow’s lawyer stopped her answering a question about which husband made the offer (the choice was between Sinatra and conductor Andre Previn). ‘It was a joke,’ Farrow reassured the court.
But Len Triola, a concert producer, says the singer Frankie Randall, a close friend of Sinatra, confided to him that, ‘livid’ over Allen’s behaviour, Ol’ Blue Eyes went a lot further than making an idle threat.
‘Frank wanted him f***ing clipped. Taken out. That’s what he wanted,’ he told Evanier. ‘Frank loved Mia. He spoke to three people every day’ — his wife, his daughter Nancy and Mia.
According to Randall, Sinatra — whose close links with the Mob are well-documented — tried to call in a favour from his Mafia contacts, only to find he was asking too much.
Sinatra didn’t have ‘the juice’, the power with the men in charge, said Mr Triola. ‘The boys wouldn’t sanction it for him. The guys Frank dealt with, the old-timers, reputable people who aren’t with us any more or [are] in jail, wouldn’t sanction that. It would set a bad precedent.’
Triola says he heard it ‘from many guys’ that Sinatra ‘really wanted him [Allen] offed’.
But for all his reported sway with the Mob bosses who flocked to see Sinatra perform and partly financed his early career, they wouldn’t be budged.
‘They’re not ethical people to begin with, but they’re not just going to kill a movie director because he cheated on a guy’s ex-wife,’ said Mr Triola.
Sinatra ‘hated’ Allen, and it wasn’t just that he had cheated on Mia. Mr Triola recalls a story going round at the time that Allen had based the character of Lou Canova, a washed-up singer in his film Broadway Danny Rose, on Sinatra.
That alone would surely have been enough to have the volcanically temperamental crooner spitting with rage. Allen was ‘nervous’, said Mr Triola.
Nervous is an adjective long attached to Allen, who has played the fast-talking neurotic in film after film. He is the wimpy, sex-starved nerd who usually gets the girl out of sympathy rather than any sexual attraction.
But the real Allen, Evanier’s book reveals, was an amoral womaniser who shamelessly betrayed a string of women before he got round to cheating on Mia Farrow with her daughter.
Growing up in a Jewish neighbourhood of Brooklyn, he had been shy and awkward with girls. He inherited an unsociability from his parents, who found so little to talk about they once went for months without exchanging a word. Alienated from them, Allen said he would eat every meal alone in a house with no books or music.
He had an especially rocky time with his mother, a temperamental, humourless woman who would hit him. Old friends believe that relationship would colour the difficult ones he had with other women. He met his first wife, a sweet-natured, petite brunette named Harlene, in 1953 when he was 18 and she was 15. She was his first proper girlfriend. Both were virgins when they married two years later.
They argued a lot — Allen was immensely competitive, even reading her text books when she did a philosophy course and hiring himself a tutor in the subject.
Considerable success as a stand-up comic in the early Sixties was the turning point of Allen’s life. Aged 24, he started an affair with a vivacious 21-year-old actress, Louise Lasser.
He divorced Harlene in 1962. She got virtually nothing financially from their five-year marriage, although he was soon earning $250,000 a year as a performer and comedy writer.
As soon as they had split up, Allen would start ridiculing a generic comic ‘wife’ with vicious jokes in his act in clubs and on TV. In their final divorce settlement, one of her terms was that he stop making jokes about her.
Even David Evanier, an ardent fan of Allen, admits the comic has got off extremely lightly over his mistreatment of women — largely because he is funny about it. Allen appears to feel no remorse about his behaviour toward the opposite sex, he says.
He has never ‘acknowledged the pain’ he caused Mia Farrow by letting her find explicit pictures of Soon-Yi in his office. ‘In fact, he acts indifferent and blind to the issue.’
A friend of Allen puts it more strongly, telling the author: ‘There’s no feeling of guilt in him or of conscience.’
His natural shyness has not stopped him chasing women. While away from Louise Lasser in Paris, where he was working on the first film he wrote, What’s New Pussycat?, he took a fancy to one of the film’s costume designers, Vicky Tiel.
Allen and the director had a bet. Whoever bought Vicky the birthday present she liked most would get to sleep with her on the night of her 21st birthday. Allen won, giving her a pinball machine and it appears Tiel, who liked them both, agreed to honour the bet.
The following day he waited for her in bed at the George V Hotel, but she stood him up after getting a better offer from a handsome man she met over lunch. Allen was ‘devastated’, she said, but still managed to use the episode in his film, Manhattan, in which a woman recounts falling in love with a man over lunch in London.
Allen married Ms Lasser in 1966, the workaholic performing two stand-up shows on the day of their wedding. Although Evanier believes they genuinely loved each other, it was a rocky marriage thanks largely to Lasser suffering from depression.
By 1969, Allen was cheating again, with a young Diane Keaton, whom he had cast in his stage show Play It Again, Sam. Louise had a mental breakdown after learning of his infidelity, although she insists she looks back on their marriage with fondness.
Whether or not she is speaking out of jealousy as the spurned wife, Ms Lasser believes Allen never actually found Keaton sexually attractive. She says that while she herself was — like Allen — Jewish and had the kind of body Woody ‘craved’, the tall, all-American Keaton didn’t do it for him.
‘He was not greatly attracted to her in a sexual sense,’ she said. ‘He has a great sexual appetite and she had one too, but for some reason he didn’t have it with her.’
The relationship was complicated by Keaton’s bulimia and Allen’s neuroses (he screamed in a restaurant when she scraped her fork on her plate) but still lasted three years.
Although Evanier says ‘it would seem there were actually few sexual sparks’ between them, he believes this may explain why they have stayed close friends, with Keaton starring in many of his best films.
On the set of the 1977 film Annie Hall, in which Keaton took the lead role, Allen — now in his 40s and no longer attached to her — met 17-year-old Stacey Nelkin and started another affair, his first with a girl much younger than he was.