Yes, there were times,
I’m sure you knew,
when I bit off more
than I could chew.
But through it all,
when there was doubt,
I ate it up and spat it out.
I faced it all,
and I stood tall,
and did it my way.*
*From My Way by Paul Anka, J. Revaux, and C. François.
For once, Frank Sinatra really had bitten off more than he could chew, and he hardly stood tall. Astonishing an Australian concert audience with an impromptu onstage diatribe in which he labeled the press in general as “bums,” “pimps” and “parasites,” and called women reporters “hookers” not worth $1.50, he aroused the fury of the country’s powerful labor unions and found his $750,000 national tour on the brink of cancellation.
Proud Aussies, already treated to the unsavory spectacle of Sinatra’s bodyguards strong-arming reporters, exploded in anger. Journalists howled for apologies, musicians and theatrical workers forced the cancellation of a concert in Melbourne, and sympathetic transport workers refused to refuel his private jet. If the foul-mouthed crooner ever wanted to get home to the U.S., warned Robert J. Hawke, the tough, ambitious president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, he should either apologize or learn to “walk across water.” Australians delight in “cutting down tall poppies,” and Sinatra had seemingly set himself up for a trimming.
Then, with anxious Sinatra aides considering an appeal to the U.S. State Department for help, the impasse was abruptly broken when Hawke changed his tough stance. A 45-year-old Rhodes Scholar who once earned a niche in the Guinness Book of World Records by downing 2½ pints of ale in 12 seconds, Hawke “negotiated” for four hours with Sinatra lawyer Milton Rudin before going on national television to announce the singer’s “regrets,” which amounted to something considerably less than an apology. Sinatra lent his personal imprimatur to a peace treaty over a ceremonial bourbon on the rocks.
If the 56-year-old Sinatra felt even the slightest bit chastened by his experience, he managed to conceal it. Later, resuming his tour in Sydney, Frank the Crank, as Aussies labeled him, joked about the uproar he had caused. “I heard that President Nixon was thrilled with U.S. coverage of my Australian tour because it ran Watergate right off the front pages,” he told an audience that included Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. “I even heard the President was thinking of sending Henry Kissinger down to keep it going for awhile.” When Sydney hotel workers decided to cut off his plentiful room service supply of food and drink, Sinatra feigned horror. “I don’t mind them not gassing up the plane!” he exclaimed. “But gas me up—don’t shut me out! That’s a terrible thing to do to a drinking fella!”
Even as Australia’s rough-and-tumble tabloid press celebrated the “Blacking of Ol’ Blue Eyes,” Sinatra’s apology was clearly a mockery. Wisely, the acidulous warbler decided against a reprise of the billingsgate that had put him down under Down Under. But his antipathy came through loud and clear. “Cheers, cheers,” he crowed to a Sydney audience, “I drink to the confusion of our enemies.”
Sinatra’s rabid distaste for the Australian press corps apparently predated his latest tempest-tossed tour. On one of the singer’s three previous visits Down Under, a novice reporter had nettled him at the airport by asking how his illustrious name should be spelled. On another tour, during the filming of the movie On the Beach, Sinatra’s second wife Ava Gardner was enjoying a widely publicized affair in Australia with an Italian actor.
This time around Sinatra refused even to hold still to be photographed. As for interviews, he maintained, “I wouldn’t give one to my mother.” But if Mama Sinatra couldn’t qualify for a quick Q and A, one woman journalist did. The “broad,” it turned out this time, was none other than Margaret Whitlam, one of Australia’s top magazine columnists, and, as it happens, the prime minister’s wife. But what he told her remained a state secret.