In a new edition of his best-selling biography, “Frank Sinatra: Behind the Legend,” out this week, author J. Randy Taraborrelli collected more anecdotes about the Chairman’s many loves — including one of the strangest relationships in showbiz history, Sinatra and Mia Farrow.
He met her in September 1964 when he was filming the movie “Von Ryan’s Express” for 20th Century–Fox. She was a young blond waif, one of the stars of the new “Peyton Place” television show. She was loitering about the movie set, eyeing Frank Sinatra while wearing nothing but a sheer white nightgown from the wardrobe of her show.
Reed thin, with pale skin and luminous blue eyes, she was at once childlike and seductive. At just 5-feet, 5 inches and weighing only 98 pounds, she had the figure of a young boy. However, she possessed something Frank would later describe as “some kind of female magic.” He couldn’t help but want to know her.
He tapped her on the shoulder.
“How old are ya, kid?” he asked her.
“That’s hardly a question to ask a lady,” she responded. Then, with a flick of her long blond mane, she answered, “I’m just 19.”
“I was hers, instantly,” Frank recalled. “I loved that hair, man. I think the hair’s what got me.”
Sinatra, then 49, asked her to sit down and chat.
As Mia took her seat, she dropped her purse and out of it fell all sorts of things between his feet and under his chair: a stale doughnut (“Oh my, I’m so sorry!”); a can of cat food (“Oh no, I’m so embarrassed!”); a ChapStick (“No! No! No!”); even her retainer (“Oh my God!”). He couldn’t help but be amused as she repeatedly apologized while collecting her scattered things. As she stuffed everything back into her purse, he was charmed by her.
“I thought the only thing I could do was to get out of there with any shred of dignity that might remain,” Mia later remembered, laughing. “And as I stood up to leave, his eyes met mine, and my heart stopped, you know? Everything came together. I was just so alive in that moment.”
He started calling her “Angel Face.” She began calling him “Charlie Brown.”
She knew what she saw in him, it was obvious. In her eyes, he was everything a girl could ask for: A great lover. An amazing man. Powerful. In control. Famous. Honest. Yes, probably even a father figure. She wasn’t so naïve that she wasn’t able to put the pieces together: Her father was never there for her, but Frank was — at least in the moment. It made sense. She missed her father, and it felt good being with Frank.
Jesus Christ, Frank. I got Scotch older than this kid!
Frank was falling in love, or at least that’s how it felt to him at the time. “God help me,” he remarked to Dean Martin, “but I’m tired of feeling sad, old and washed up. We’re talking marriage already, pallie.”
“Jesus Christ, Frank,” Dean exclaimed. “I got Scotch older than this kid!”
After a couple of weeks of happiness, a problem surfaced. Mia, in years to come, would always remember the day Frank came to her and said, “I was thinking. You should give up acting. Who needs it? You and I can settle down, and I’ll just take care of you. So . . . quit.”
She didn’t even have to think about it. The answer was no.
“My career is the only thing I have that gives me purpose,” Mia said. “I’m not giving it up.”
A startled expression lingered on Frank’s face. He thought she’d just agree, and that would be the end of it.
“If we’re going to be together, you must listen to what I say,” Mia said. She added that her mother had told her that this was the way relationships were supposed to work. As Sinatra’s valet George Jacobs served cocktails, he tried not to eavesdrop, but it was impossible.
“Holy s–t, Mia,” Frank said, exasperated. “Gimme some more gasoline,” he told Jacobs, holding out his glass to him.
“Get used to me having a mind of my own,” Mia said. “You are not my father, and I am not your daughter. You don’t get to tell me what to do.”
Frank just stared at her. Mia stormed out. He then turned to George Jacobs. “And there she goes,” he said, “off to play with her Easy Bake Oven.”
Everything was going fairly well for Frank and Mia until the end of 1965. Then his first wife, Nancy, and her daughters, Nancy Jr. and Tina, began planning a party to celebrate Frank’s 50th birthday.
Nancy Sr., who was 48 that year, didn’t believe that Frank was really serious about Mia but still didn’t want to start any trouble. Three days before the event, she suggested that Frank invite Mia. He was happy, of course, as was Mia. He took her to a Beverly Hills boutique and treated her to a shopping spree — “Anything my girl wants, she can have.” Among the bounty of expensive designer clothing Mia bought was a baby-blue chiffon dress for the party.
The night of the party, Mia excitedly prepared herself. “How do you like my dress,” she asked as she descended the staircase. She posed for Frank, twirled around and smiled.
“I’m afraid I changed my mind, Babyface,” Frank said. “I’m sorry. You can’t go.”
“But why?” Mia asked, instant tears springing to her eyes. George Jacobs ran to get a box of tissues. He knew what was coming.
“It’s just not going to work,” Frank explained. “My son called and he’s upset, and his sisters are upset. I don’t know. Just do me a favor, Mia, and don’t go, OK?”
The day after the party, Mia was due at the set of “Peyton Place” at 8 in the morning. When she didn’t show up, director Jeffrey Hayden was frantic and pacing. “Where the hell is she?” he asked everyone. “It’s nine and she’s not here. She’s never late. Of all days!”
Finally, an hour later, Mia showed up. Hayden let her have it. “Mia!” he exclaimed. “We have 10 pages to film here today! Get to that makeup table! Stop this little-girl stuff! You’re an actress! You’re a mature person! You’ve got a crew of 75 people waiting to shoot your scenes.”
He was tough on her.
“I’m sorry,” she said, very quietly. Seeming somehow dazed, Mia then walked robotically to her dressing room. She sat down. She found a pair of scissors on the table, she gazed at her reflection in the mirror . . . and then she proceeded to cut off her hair.
Those long locks that Frank had so loved from the moment he met her, all gone in an instant. Given the speed with which she did it, it couldn’t have been done in an artful way, either. It actually looked like she just had hacked away at it. Or as Mia herself put it, “I picked up a pair of scissors and cut my hair to less than an inch in length.”
“She came back a minute and a half later,” Jeffrey Hayden recalls. “She walked over to me, held up her hand full of the hair from her head, and she said, ‘Jeff. No more little-girl stuff.’ And handed me all her hair.”
Without telling most of their friends of family, Frank and Mia were married on July 20, 1966, in Las Vegas. Mia wore a white silk dress with full caftan sleeves, the kind of informal dress a woman might wear for her second wedding, not her first. Her hair was boyish, cut as close to her head as Frank’s. He was dapper in a dark suit and tie.
Red Skelton, the famous comedian, was one of the few witnesses. “That guy over there, Red? He just shot his wife,” Frank confided to Mia right before the ceremony.
She was shocked. What kind of world was she entering, where a man shoots his wife and then attends the wedding of a friend? “Don’t worry. It’ll be ruled an accident,” Frank assured her. “She accidentally shot herself,” he added with a wink. (Red’s wife, Georgia Skelton, was in the hospital in Las Vegas after suffering a gunshot wound to the chest on July 19, the day before the wedding. Skelton said his wife might have brushed against the loaded gun while reaching for a dressing robe. Just as Frank predicted, the shooting was ruled accidental.)
In a few days, Frank was back in London to continue work on “The Naked Runner,” a suspense drama in which he portrays an inadvertent assassin, but now with Mia at his side and the press stalking the couple at every turn.
While in London, he took Mia to meet his second wife, Ava Gardner, one night at her new town house in Ennismore Gardens in Knightsbridge. George Jacobs recalled, “The three of us walked up to Ava’s door, knocked on it, and when it opened, there stood magnificent Ava, with all of this raven hair all teased out like a big black cloud around her face. She took one look at Mia with her short, short haircut and her mouth dropped wide open. But she recovered quickly and welcomed us into her home.”
“Francis, now why don’t you and George take little Rags out for a wee-wee,” Ava said, referring to her corgi. (This was the second corgi Ava had named Rags.)
“Well . . .” Frank hesitated. He glanced at Mia, who looked terrified.
“Oh, come now,” Ava said, putting her arm around Mia. “I won’t bite, I promise.”
“We walked out the door with Rags on a leash,” George Jacobs recalled, “and Frank said, ‘Leaving Mia with Ava is like sending a lamb to the slaughter.’ We tried to make it quick, but the dog wouldn’t piss. ‘If this little bastard doesn’t go soon, I’m gonna strangle him,’ Frank warned me. ‘We gotta get back to Mia!’ I asked him, ‘Why did we even bring her to meet Ava?’ And he said, ‘Because Ava has been bugging me about it ever since she found out we were going to be in town. I had no choice.’ He was a nervous wreck.
“Finally, when we returned, Ava and Mia were sitting on the couch, having cocktails and laughing away. Mia was just fine. Ava was very tipsy. Obviously she’d had a head start on us.
“Francis, now why didn’t you tell this child that you called me on your wedding day?” Ava asked Frank.
“Um . . . well . . .” Frank stammered, looking uncomfortable. “Did I call you, Ava?” he asked, looking like a deer in headlights.
“Why, of course you did!” Ava exclaimed. “Remember, you said, ‘Tomorrow, when you read about this wedding in the papers, know that no matter how I feel about this girl, I will always have a place in my heart for you.’ That was so sweet of him, wasn’t it, dear?” Ava asked, turning to Mia.
Mia nodded with a frozen smile. “Well, it is interesting, I’ll say that much about it,” she observed. “I think what’s even more interesting, though,” she added, glancing at Frank, “is that he wouldn’t let me call my own mother, yet he called you, his ex ‑wife.”
“Now, that is interesting, isn’t it, dear?” Ava agreed, nodding.
“Mr. S. looked like he wanted to dig a big hole in the floor and just jump right in,” recalled George Jacobs.
“As we walked to the door, Ava took Mr. S.’s arm and I heard her say, ‘I approve, Francis. I can’t say that I understand. But I do approve.’ ”