Eliot Weisman: 'I was terrified Frank Sinatra would shoot someone'

Frank Sinatra and Eliot WeismanGETTY

Frank Sinatra with his longtime manager and pal Eliot Weisman

Sinatra was a suave, swaggering crooner quick with his fists who loved to carry a glass of Jack Daniel’s, a pack of Camel cigarettes and a pack of cherry-flavour Life Saver sweets with him. But unknown to his fans, Sinatra often carried a loaded gun when he performed on stage and kept an Uzi sub-machine gun in his private jet, a shocking new memoir reveals.

And when the entertainer showed signs of confusion and memory loss in later years aides were terrified he might start shooting at concerts.

“I wondered how safe it was for him to continue to have access to weapons,” says Eliot Weisman, the singer’s manager for the last decade of his life and author of the new book The Way It Was: My Life With Frank Sinatra, to be published in the US this month.

“He hated to be touched but when I led him into arena concerts through the audience fans were always reaching for him, punching his shoulder for luck and giving him high fives, and he loathed it. That was when I was really concerned about him being armed.”

Sinatra had a licence to carry a concealed weapon but Weisman was stunned to discover that Ol’ Blue Eyes was packing heat while singing on stage.

I’m not going to rehearse with a bunch of singers

Frank Sinatra

“He usually keeps it in those custom-made boots he wears,” the singer’s security guard Merrill Kelem confided to Weisman. “Sometimes in the small of his back, or hip.”

Amazingly, Sinatra’s sub-machine gun was a gift from former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, which the singer kept on his Gulfstream jet. “That goes everywhere with us,” Sinatra’s friend and security chief Jilly Rizzo told Weisman.

But as he aged, Sinatra grew increasingly belligerent and his weapons became a liability. The singer hated doctors and when a physician insisted on examining him for a respiratory infection, Sinatra bellowed: “If you don’t get out of here I’ll blow your head off!”

A worried Weisman asked Sinatra’s road manager to remove the bullets from his gun but was told: “He’ll notice if I take the bullets out.” Instead, they filed down the firing pins and Sinatra never knew that in his fi nal years he carried disabled weapons.

Frank and Barbara Sinatra GETTY

Sinatra with his last wife Barbara in 1990

The singer’s deterioration in his 70s, exaggerated by years of antidepressant medication, reduced the once cocksure swinger into a sad shell of his former self. “One day I found him in his hotel bathroom holding his toupee, trimming it with a pair of cuticle scissors,” Weisman reveals.

“You can’t believe how fast it’s growing,” the singer said.

“Sinatra was an avid reader but one morning I found him reading the newspaper, only it was upside down. I saw him forget how to even tie his tie.

“He struggled with lyrics and forgot large chunks of songs. It was a constant battle to see him through the performances. His eyesight was so bad he was having difficulty reading the teleprompters, though the letters kept getting bigger and bigger on the screen.”

Singer Natalie Cole performed with him at one concert but on the flight home Sinatra did not recognise her, asking, “Who’s that black girl?”

Young Frank SinatraGETTY

By the time Weisman met Sinatra in 1976, he was already the Voice

Yet as his memory faded Sinatra had the biggest hit of his career with the album Duets, singing a collection of old standards (because he couldn’t remember new lyrics) with stars including Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross, Julio Iglesias and Bono of U2.

But the album was almost never made says Weisman because Sinatra didn’t want to go back in the recording studio and raged: “I’m not going to rehearse with a bunch of singers.”

When he eventually agreed, Sinatra skipped the first two days of recording, first complaining that he didn’t like the studio set-up and then that his throat hurt.

Finally Sinatra’s wife Barbara shamed him into performing. “Are you a washed-up singer?” she raged at him. “You must be afraid of something! Maybe you might as well just quit. If you’re not up to it, that’s what you should do.”

Sinatra turned to Weisman and growled, “Screw you both. I’ll do it tomorrow.”

He had to be persuaded to include Bono as one of his duet partners, asking Weisman: “Who the f*** is that?”

Singers who didn’t want to be associated with him and rejected the invitation of his management included Sir Elton John, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen.

Weisman met Sinatra while running a theatre in upstate New York where the singer often performed. When Weisman was jailed for stock fraud in 1977 he began booking gigs for Sinatra from behind bars. On Weisman’s release the singer hired him, impressed that he had refused to rat out Mafia mobsters linked to the theatre.

Sinatra called himself “an 18-carat manic-depressive” and for decades took powerful anti-depressants which altered his mood and behaviour, damaged his eyesight and affected his memory, according to Weisman. “His intense mood swings also fuelled his talents but family stress affected him.

If there was any trouble with his wife and kids his memory grew worse as he backed away from the problems. He was on those antidepressants for years. Barbara kept him on them afraid that he would become violent without them.”

Sinatra was mercurial and could alternately be generous, cruel or crude. He carried folded $ 100 bills in his pocket as tips for waiters, once offered a hotel pianist $ 500 to stop singing and had a pet parrot, Rocky, who he taught to say: “F*** you!”

“Sinatra was punctual in the extreme and if you were not on his plane on time then he would leave without you,” recalls Weisman. “Once he left without Elizabeth Taylor when her fiancé couldn’t get her out of the bathtub.”

He could be fearless and when one engine of his twin-engine plane had to be jump-started after a concert, he insisted on flying: “This plane can fly on one engine for 45 minutes. Let’s get out of here!”

At 75, Sinatra’s fists still flew. He worked out regularly on a punch bag and when troubled by an aggressive paparazzo in Italy, lashed out with a right hook. “The guy’s feet left the ground and he went down,” says Weisman.

“Sinatra was tough. “He loved to push my buttons,” says Weisman, who controlled the singer’s finances and was called “Moneybags” by Sinatra.

“If we were on the road too much he would say, ‘What are we? Broke?’ But if he hadn’t toured lately he’d ask, ‘What are we? Retired?’”

Sinatra famously said: “You’ve got to love living, ’cause dying is a pain in the a**.”

Frank Sinatra and Nancy GETTY

Frank with his first wife Nancy in 1946

But in his final days Sinatra’s words to Weisman were far more poignant: “Dying is corny.” Weisman admits: “It stunned me, contemplating his death. He was depressed but he wasn’t afraid of death. What he feared was losing his iconic status.

“He was pressured by his children to quit and when Barbara jumped on that train it was over. I believe he should have kept going. He was happiest on stage; that’s where he came alive. At home he went into dark moods.”

Sinatra died of heart failure in 1998, aged 82, but his children – Nancy, Tina and Frank Jr – were incensed that Barbara Sinatra had not called them to their father’s deathbed.

The snub ignited a long-brewing feud over the singer’s estate with Weisman caught in the middle as executor of Sinatra’s will.

It took him five years to settle the estate with Sinatra’s children getting the rights to his name and likeness along with his Capitol Records royalties and control of his Reprise recording masters, while his widow Barbara got Sinatra’s homes, artwork and the royalties from Duets and its lucrative sequel album.

Ex-wife Nancy was also looked after. Even following their divorce Sinatra gave her 10 per cent of his earnings and they spoke often. “I believe he felt guilty about leaving her but he couldn’t help himself,” says Weisman.

“He was the bravest guy I know, a champion of the underdog, with loyalty, honesty and integrity. The world is still looking to fi ll the void he left behind. I still miss him every day.”

To pre-order The Way It Was: My Life With Frank Sinatra, by Eliot Weisman (Hachette, £20) published on December 28, call the Express Bookshop with your card details on 01872 562 310. Or send a cheque/ PO payable to The Express Bookshop to Frank Sinatra Offer PO Box 200, Falmouth TR11 4WJ or visit expressbookshop.co.uk UK delivery is free.

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