Let us now praise famous men. Better yet, let’s get their doting daughters to do it. Such was the seed planted 20 years ago at an intimate dinner at Trader Vic’s in Beverly Hills. The party consisted of author-to-be Nancy Sinatra, Mia Farrow (then Frank Sinatra’s girlfriend), Random House founder Bennett Cerf and the Chairman of the Board himself.
The subject of the conversation was a recently published piece about the charismatic crooner that had been rife with inaccuracies. Frank pondered aloud, “I wonder when the next book will be out and we’ll have to go through it all over again?” Cerf then jokingly said, ” You’d better write a book about your father, Nancy, and tell the true story.” Mia seconded the motion.
No one dreamed that such a casually dropped seed could achieve fruition. But now, two decades later, Cerf’s suggestion has become a weighty reality. It is a photo-heavy, 3.8-pound, 340-page song of adulation from a loving daughter to her dearest daddy: Frank Sinatra, My Father (Doubleday, $50). “It may not be brilliant,” says Nancy, “but it’s big.”
Frank’s elder daughter may be able to joke about it now, but in the years from 1969, when her research officially began, to final publication, Nancy’s obsession took its emotional toll. “I bled this book,” she says. “Each picture and caption was agonized over. When my husband [TV producer Hugh Lambert] was dying of cancer [last year], I went to New York for a week to work on captions. I ended up staying three weeks, leaving my children with a father who couldn’t speak and nurses around the clock.”
Frank, who turned 70 on Dec. 12, only asked that she change one thing—her portrayal of his mother, Dolly. “I’d made her out to be a tough lady,” Nancy says. With her father’s lawyers, she consulted FBI files and found nothing to connect Sinatra to the Mob. “That’s fiction,” claims Nancy.
The book is a “love letter,” Nancy admits, but “not a whitewash.” Sure enough, some ever-so-faintly-soiled family linen is aired. Little Frank wet his pants at the altar when he was ring bearer at his Aunt Dora’s wedding. On tour years later with Nancy in Australia, big Frank’s womanizing shattered his 14-year-old daughter’s innocence. She found “some intimate ladies’ apparel” in the desk of her father’s adjoining hotel room. She remembers, “I was suddenly deeply sad. I stopped writing in my little diary. He had cheated on me.”
Nancy explains that the biography was so long in the making (she interviewed about 250 friends and associates) because “I forgot about it when I was having babies. Before that I was on the road a lot.” Besides, adds Nancy, “This was a big project. It’s not a tiny life we’re talking about.”
Her filial fascination now captured for posterity, Nancy Sinatra Lambert, 45, is a serious single parent who devotes her time to daughters Angela Jennifer, 11, and Amanda, 9. On school days she’s up at 6:30 a.m. in their Beverly Hills home to make them breakfast and a brown-bag lunch, and she takes her turn at the wheel of her Jaguar in a school car pool.
That strong mothering instinct may be a consequence of the neglect Nancy sometimes felt growing up. “My father was always saying goodbye,” she writes. Though her parents’ separation when she was 9 was traumatic (until he married Barbara Marx, Nancy Jr. hoped for a reconciliation), she says she never saw her parents fight and “in fact, they were always loving before and after the divorce.” It was not until Nancy happened on pictures of her father with Ava Gardner in a movie magazine that she realized what had happened. Before then, she writes, she blamed herself: “Did I do anything wrong?” If she did, she has clearly atoned with this unabashed birthday buss of a bio.