A Hoboken, New Jersey native and the son of Italian immigrants, Frank Sinatra was the Elvis, the Bieber, the Jagger, of the teenage generation during World War II. After a few years of bobbysoxer besiege, however, “Old Blue Eyes” slid before the Technicolor cameras and transformed into a film star of the Fabulous Fifties. From there he was soon enough popping into the little screen once a week to host his own television variety show.
He did all this while belting out smash-hit singles and albums, just enough whiskey by now to give texture to the silky sound of his voice, very much at the top of his game, a living legend by the dawn of the Jet Age in 1960. Beside his solo work, however, Sinatra was by then titular king of a swinging gang of hard-drinking wisecrackers, actors and singers collectively known as the Rat Pack. Numerous names came along for the ride, but they weren’t a pack if, on any given Las Vegas stage or Hollywood backlot, they were absent Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Joey Bishop.
Although not as renowned as them, the one who proved to lynchpin for what Frankie Boy considered an important part of his public life was actor Peter Lawford.
British by birth, it was Lawford who famously connected Sinatra with his brother-in-law in 1960, then a United States Senator from Massachusetts, but soon to be the Democratic nominee for the presidency, John F. Kennedy.
Yet while Lawford has always been credited with introducing “Frank” and “Jack,” the person who unfailingly fails to be credited for drawing Sinatra into the family circle was Patricia Kennedy Lawford, wife of Peter, sister of Jack.
According to the memoirs of her son Christopher, also an actor, it was his mother’s fascination with Sinatra and her initial cultivation of him which led to the development of a friendship with her husband. Pat Lawford so persistently charmed him that Sinatra dropped his misguided grudge against Peter for being sweet years earlier on his old flame Ava Gardner.
The Lawfords had a swell spread in Santa Monica, California and soon enough Sinatra was always swinging through there, along with other bold-faced names like Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Shirley Maclaine. Lawford and Sinatra even became partners in Puccini’s, a famous Beverly Hills restaurant in the late 1950s.
Apart from his talents, the Lawfords knew Sinatra was one serious Democrat. He’d been a strong supporter of the party since 1944, contributing an astounding $5,000 to F.D.R.’s fourth and final campaign and stumping for him. He did the same for Truman in 1948 and Stevenson in 1952 and 1956.
Although he sang the national anthem at the 1956 Democratic National Convention while Senator Kennedy was in attendance, hoping to nab the vice-presidential nomination, they didn’t then connect.
They finally got to personally connect on February 7, 1960, at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. Sinatra was performing with the Rat Pack. Kennedy and his entourage, including his brother Teddy, western-state coordinator during his primaries campaign, were fundraising and seeking commitments of political support. Peter brought Frank around to sit down a spell and talk politics with Jack.
After their initial meeting, while Sinatra was on stage performing with the Rat Pack, he soon couldn’t help himself from bellowing to the audience with pride in pointing out “the next President of the United States,” seated among them. The moment was even caught on tape.
By night’s end, however, Sinatra had cooked up a way to back Jack through a venue more massive than any Las Vegas stage could reach. Before the month was out, he released a single with a new take on a song he’d made his own the year before.
He’d not only starred in Frank Capra’s 1959 movie A Hole in the Head, but also sang an energetic song cheerfully enforced with a chorus of kids. Called High Hopes, it had even won the Oscar for Best Original Song.
Now, Sinatra approached the song’s lyricist Sammy Cahn and they changed the words to transform it into what soon proved to be the upbeat, catchy campaign song for John F. Kennedy, used during the primaries and straight up to Election Day.
Although, after the convention, the campaign would commission a song, Kennedy, Kennedy with a jumpy mix of graphics and still photos was used as a television commercial and sought to convey through its lyrics the idea of Kennedy as old enough to be seasoned and experienced but young enough to innovate policy with new ideas, the chorus of alternating men and women had the distinctive sound of popular television commercials from the 1950s, making it sound a bit , it dated next to the new version of the Sinatra hit.
Not only was the small 45rpm record available for sale to the general public, but it was placed in diner and bar jukeboxes in primary states Kennedy needed to win if he hoped to nab the nomination. High Hopes was also played at rallies and a few television and radio commercials.
On at least one occasion, Sinatra performed the song at a fundraiser attended by his friend Pat Lawford and her brother, the would-be President.
Here is a comparison, the first clip being of the officially commissioned campaign song and the second clip being the Sinatra one:
On July 11, the night before the Los Angeles Democratic National Convention began, Sinatra recruited some of Tinsletown’s most famous names to fill the seats at a party fundraiser and was on stage the next day for the opening ceremony of the convention.
Throughout the week of balloting, he alternated between dropping in on meetings in a Beverly Hills home serving as the Kennedy crowd’s base and weaving among state delegations, imploring the uncommitted to back Jack.
When Kennedy won the nomination that Wednesday, Sinatra cracked to Lawford, “We’re on our way to the White House!”
Despite his busy work schedule, Sinatra managed to make campaign appearances in the fall, singing his High Hopes, and keeping a flame under other celebrities to keep on for Kennedy.
On Election Night, he gathered at the home of fellow loyalists Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, hunkering down for what proved to be a long night waiting for the state vote counts which eventually gave Kennedy victory in the early morning hours.
Along with Lawford, Sinatra organized Kennedy’s Inaugural Gala, held in the Washington Armory on the evening before the January 20, 1961 swearing-in ceremony.
The Gala gave him a second chance to politicize some familiar lyrics. Putting High Hopes aside as the campaign song, Sinatra crooned another of his standards, That Old Black Magic – but as That Old Jack Magic, in honor of the President-elect.
Sinatra would visit the Kennedy family in the summer of 1961 at their Hyannis Port compound, and the President’s father even hosted a party for him, in thanks for his campaign effort. Two months earlier, he’d been joined by the President’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, for a Cedars-Sinai Hospital charity fundraiser. And that fall, he eagerly accepted an invite to a White House luncheon. In early 1962, however, when President Kennedy retracted his acceptance of Sinatra’s invitation to stay at his Palm Springs home on what is widely speculated to have been due to the performer’s friendship and business involvement with organized crime leaders, their friendship ended abruptly. The ensuing years would bring further allegations entangling Sinatra, Peter Lawford, their friend Marilyn Monroe, President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, despite the lingering fact that no imperative documentation has managed to absolutely prove anything one way – or the other.
Still, Frank Sinatra’s musical contribution to the campaign and and infusion of it with big-name entertainment made him the man to marry Hollywood and Washington. As Kennedy remarked at the end of the Inaugural Gala, “The happy relationship between the arts and politics which has characterized our long history I think reached culmination tonight.”
- Celebrities With Ties To The Kennedys (huffingtonpost.com)
- Frank Sinatra’s NYC Penthouse (Inside Look) (realestate.aol.com)
- Swingin’ With The Rat Pack: Continental Mark II, Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, Ghia L6.4 (motortrend.com)