May 15, 1998 12:00 PM

Although he had been ill for months, Frank Sinatra woke on that mid-May morning feeling a little stronger. He ventured out to his patio for an alfresco lunch with his wife, Barbara, and seemed invigorated by the sunshine. Early that evening, when she met friends at Mortons restaurant for a rare dinner out, Barbara assured them her husband was “his old cranky self.” “And when Frank’s cranky,” says Armand Deutsch, her host for the evening, “that’s how you know he’s doing better.”

That night, things changed suddenly, and dramatically, for the worse. Shortly after 9 p.m. attendants at the Sinatras’ Beverly Hills home called 911 to report an emergency. Paramedics rushed him to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where Barbara—summoned from the restaurant—took his hand. “You’ve fought bigger things than this and beat them,” she told him according to friend Jerry Vale. “Fight.” This time, Sinatra’s fight was gone. With his wife at his side, he closed his famous blue eyes for the last time.

The end of Sinatra’s life, while sudden, was not entirely unexpected. “He was a two-fisted guy, and he lived a tough life,” said longtime friend Don Rickles. “It takes its toll.” Once the hub of a near-perpetual party, a best friend to cigarettes, booze and the dawn patrol, Sinatra had in his last years been slowed by two heart attacks, pneumonia and an array of other health problems. Pianist Bill Miller, who had shared stages with Sinatra for more than 40 years, was saddened last November when the singer didn’t seem to recognize him.

But Sinatra also had lucid days and devoted much of his remaining energy to planning the first annual Frank Sinatra Las Vegas Celebrity Classic golf tournament, a fund-raiser for his wife’s center for abused children. “That was his baby,” says TV producer and friend George Schlatter. “It was the focus of his last days.”

As TV networks and magazines rushed to pay tribute, fans from Hoboken, N.J., to Las Vegas, Nev.—the dusty burg he helped transform into an entertainment capital—snapped up his CDs and videos, or just raised a cocktail or a forkful of pasta in his honor. “My father was a Sinatra fan, and when he died, Frank began to mean a lot to me, too,” said Terry Brady, 39, a lawyer from suburban Winnetka, Ill., who paid his respects at Jilly’s, a Chicago club dedicated to the singer. “When I heard he died, I felt goose bumps.”

So did the famous. “He was the greatest performer of our time,” former First Lady Nancy Reagan told PEOPLE.

“The big bang of pop,” offered U2 singer Bono, who sang with the master on the latter’s Duets album. “He invented pop music.”

“Even 200 years from now, Sinatra won’t sound dated,” said Tony Bennett. “He’ll live forever.”

While Sinatra’s family planned his funeral mass and burial, comedian Tom Dreesen was thinking about the last words Sinatra spoke to him, at a family dinner four days before the singer’s death. Too weak to come to the table, he ate his barbecued chicken and ribs in his room but still found the energy to give Dreesen his familiar farewell. “He said, ‘If anybody ever hits you, call me,’ ” Dreesen recalls. “That was Frank’s way of saying, ‘I love you.’ ”

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