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Frank Account

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A year ago, as Tina Sinatra sat down to work on a memoir of her father, Frank, she had distinctly mixed feelings. On the one hand there were plenty of warm memories of her famous dad—snuggling with him as a young girl in the ’50s, the two of them watching The Red Skelton Show on the couch in his study. But she also knew she would have to address unpleasant topics. In the end, she says, writing the bestselling My Father’s Daughter “helped me heal. It helped me purge a lot of junk. I realized that the millions of people who really loved him or who were interested in him are going to feel the closure that I am feeling.”

Of course, one person’s closure can be another’s gaping wound. True to the spirit of her father, who seldom minced words, her book is a passionate, at times angry, account of her family life. And while the book dishes its share of intimate details about one of the world’s most celebrated entertainers—Tina is the first member of the clan to publicly admit that, as has been rumored for years, her father consorted with gangsters like Chicago boss Sam Giancana—the biggest revelation is the level of enmity between Tina, 52, and her stepmother Barbara Marx, now 73. Tina alleges that Barbara, Frank’s fourth wife, whom he married in 1976, cut the singer off from his family as he lay dying at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles in May 1998. “It was a really sad end for him,” says Tina. “My father did not die, he escaped.”

As Tina tells it, she has always remained loyal to her mother, Nancy, still vigorous at 83 and living in Los Angeles, and never had any problems with her father’s other wives: Ava Gardner, whom he wed in 1951 and who died in 1990, and Mia Farrow, now 55, who married Frank in 1968 in a union that lasted less than two years. “I was friends with Mia—still am,” says Tina. “I was 4 when I first met Ava. She was gentle and accessible to children. I remember when I met her, she immediately knelt down to come to my level.”

By contrast it didn’t take long, she says, for her relationship with Barbara to become strained. Tina was convinced that Barbara, the ex-wife of Zeppo Marx, hoped all along to distance Frank from his own children, who also include singers Frank Jr., 56, and Nancy, 60, both of whom cooperated with their sister in contributing to the book. “There were no pictures of us in the house,” says Tina. “I found that odd. I was unable to feel welcomed.” Tina portrays Barbara as a schemer who was intent on promoting the interests of her own son, Bobby, from a previous marriage. (Bobby, now 50, is a lawyer in New York.) “I got the feeling that Barbara didn’t care if I dropped dead,” says Tina. “In her mind that would be more for her and Bobby. As crude as it is, it’s the truth.” (Neither Barbara nor Bobby would comment for this article; Barbara’s lawyer Arthur Crowley dismisses the book as “highly inaccurate and very disjointed.”)

Author Bill Zehme, who wrote a book about Frank’s sense of style called The Way You Wear Your Hat, was witness to some of the acrimony between Barbara and the kids. He recalls that Barbara wanted to throw a major bash at L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium to celebrate Frank’s 80th birthday. Both Tina and Nancy Jr. opposed the idea on the grounds that their father wanted no part of it, which evidently incensed Barbara. The star-studded extravaganza was staged anyway in November 1995, much to Frank’s seeming displeasure. “Frank wanted to get the hell out and go to a saloon,” says Zehme. “He was miserable sitting there watching Salt-N-Pepa and Paula Abdul [perform].”

Later, when Zehme was completing a magazine article on Frank, he says that Barbara’s camp tried to get him to delete any mention of Tina or Nancy, which he refused to do. “That was the first time I realized something was really wrong between them,” says Zehme. “I knew there were two camps, but I didn’t know it was this aggressively hostile to the point where his daughters were not allowed to exist any longer and if they were mentioned it could cause some cataclysm in Frank’s world.”

According to Tina, it was the circumstances surrounding her father’s death that caused tensions to erupt into open hostility. Throughout early May 1998, the 82-year-old singer had lain seriously ill at his home in Beverly Hills, suffering from congestive heart failure. On May 14 his condition worsened, and he was rushed to Cedars-Sinai. Though her father stayed alive there for roughly 80 minutes, says Tina, Barbara never alerted the rest of the family so they could say their goodbyes—a decision the author considers unforgivable. “She knew exactly what was happening,” says Tina, who describes in the book the anguish of having to kiss her father’s still-warm body when she arrived shortly after his death. “I will live with the guilt of not being there for the rest of my life.”

“Whatever the case, for first wife Nancy Sinatra and the kids it was the final chapter to what had already been a traumatic experience. “He lived such a good, charmed life,” she says. “It was too bad he had to go like that, suffering as he did. You never expected him to end up that way—he always said he never would.” Nancy is not surprised that it was Tina who decided to go public with her recriminations. “[My other daughter] Nancy is a little more sensitive,” says her mother. “Not that Tina isn’t, but Tina is the stronger of the two girls.” For her part, Nancy Jr. applauds Tina’s book as fair and balanced. “There are some stories that simply could not be told—out of respect for my father while he was still alive—that can now be part of the public record,” she says on her Web site. “I am very proud of my sister for jumping into the fray.” And in an interview she makes it clear there is no love lost between her and Barbara either. “There’s a meanness and cruelty there,” she says, “that I don’t understand.”

Tina says she has not spoken to Barbara since Frank’s funeral on May 20, 1998. She insists that she has no gripes about the way her father’s estimated $200 million estate was divided, with Barbara getting the tangible assets, including property and savings (the “fluffy stuff,” as Tina puts it), and his kids getting the rights to his music and image. “I feel fine the way it turned out,” she says. Twice divorced and without children, Tina has known plenty of her own heartache. In 1993, after she had a five-year romance with actor James Farentino, he was charged with stalking her, to which he pleaded no contest. But she has been heartened by the popular response to her book. “I think the reason I am getting it is because everyone regarded my father as larger and stronger than life,” she says. “But the fact is we are all the same. The closer we get to the end of our lives, the more alike we become. Everybody goes through the same pain.”

Bill Hewitt

Vicki Sheff-Cahan and Edmund Newton in Los Angeles