Sinatra and $3.5m of Mafia cash in a briefcase - Thursday 12th of May 2005

FRANK Sinatra volunteered to be a courier for the Mob and was almost caught smuggling millions of dollars of "dirty money" into New York, according to a new book about the singer’s life. American comedian Jerry Lewis recounts that Sinatra was stopped by customs officers but saved by fans who unwittingly distracted the officials at a crucial moment. Had they not, Lewis says, "we would never have heard from him again". In a separate episode, a gangster friend of Sinatra used his powers of persuasion on a Hollywood boss to land the actor-singer the part of Private Angelo Maggio in the 1953 film From Here to Eternity. "Give Frank the role, or I will have you killed," Johnny Rosselli allegedly threatened Columbia Pictures chief Harry Cohn. Sinatra was promptly given a contract and won an Oscar for the role, reviving a career that had been on the slide.

The anecdotes are shared in Sinatra - The Life, due for publication this month. Written by former BBC journalist Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swann, the book is touted as "the first fully documented, comprehensively researched, birth-to-death biography" of the legend known as The Voice. Drawing on what they claim to be a treasure trove of documents and interviews, the authors promise "stunning new information" about Sinatra’s links to the Mob, including notorious godfathers such as Sam "Momo" Giancana and Charles "Lucky" Luciano. The book’s advance publicity boasts revelations as to how the relationship with the Mob impacted on others, including President John F Kennedy. There are also details of Sinatra’s love affairs, first-hand from the women he romanced. They include his actress wife Ava Gardner, recounting both the joy and the pain of their times together.

"We learn what it was like to be the friend of a man who was generous and loyal to a fault, yet - as some of his fellow Rat Packers discovered - could turn abruptly into a vindictive brute," the authors say. In a career that lasted 60 years, Sinatra became one of the most popular and prolific music figures of the 20th century, coming to the fore during the "swing" era of the 1930s and 1940s and still managing to churn out million-selling recordings in the 1990s. Hits included New York New York, I Get a Kick Out of You, Come Fly With Me, Lady is a Tramp and Strangers in the Night. For decades, rumours swirled of Sinatra’s Mafia connections - rumours that he denied right up to his death from a heart attack in May 1998, at the age of 82. But his Mob secrets did not go to the grave with him. The FBI, under J Edgar Hoover, had amassed more extensive files on Sinatra than on any other entertainer in US history, ultimately releasing all 1,275 pages after his death. The papers included details of his links to organised crime, ties that were confirmed by his daughter Tina in her book, My Father’s Daughter, in 2000. In Sinatra - The Life, Jerry Lewis recalls that the man who became known in showbusiness circles as the Chairman of the Board offered his services to the Mafia in the late 1940s. "He volunteered to be a messenger for them," Lewis told Summers and Swann, claiming the deal was struck over drinks with mobster Meyer Lansky after Sinatra heard that the Mafia was looking to extend its reach way beyond its New York and Chicago bases.

To borrow a phrase from New York New York, Sinatra wanted "to be a part of it". "Frank, at a cocktail party, told Meyer in no uncertain terms, ‘If there is going to be East Coast, West Coast, intercontinental and foreign - if all that’s going to happen, I go all the time, Meyer’," Lewis alleged. Shortly after Lucky Luciano had been deported from the US to Italy in February 1946 following convictions for running multi-million dollar prostitution and extortion rackets, Sinatra arrived in New York carrying the briefcase stuffed with $3.5 million, counted out in $50 bills, Lewis claims. The episode partly paralleled a storyline from the novel The Godfather Returns, in which saloon singer Johnny Fontane - a character loosely based on Sinatra - delivers a bag of cash to Mafia don Michael Corleone. Customs officers stopped Sinatra and opened the case. But the star-struck crowd around them began pushing and shoving, causing the officers to cut short their search before they had found anything and wave the singer through.

The new book also makes allegations concerning Sinatra’s feud with Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, the gangster credited with turning Las Vegas into a gambling mecca. When Sinatra tried to set himself up in the entertainment capital, he found his ambitions blocked by Siegel. In a "whacking" approved by Lucky Luciano, Siegel - who had also fallen out of favour with his Mob cohorts over financial problems in Las Vegas - was shot dead in 1947, at the age of 42. Sinatra later toured the Beverly Hills mansion where Siegel died and looked at the room where it happened, the book states. "Frank and the others got very solemn and raised a glass to him," claims actress Shirley Ballard, who was Sinatra’s girlfriend at the time. "It was very eerie." The link between John F Kennedy and Sinatra has been spelled out in the book The Sinatra Files, edited by Tom and Phil Kuntz. Sinatra met the actor Peter Lawford in April 1944. Ten years later, Lawford married Patricia Kennedy, younger sister of John F Kennedy. The singer’s friendship with Lawford became a friendship with Kennedy. FBI files reveal that, by 1960, JFK had become a golfing pal of Sinatra and his Rat Pack colleagues.

On stage with Sinatra one night, Dean Martin called Kennedy, who was in the audience, "one of my best buddies" - and then prompted laughter by turning to Sinatra and saying, "What the hell is his name?" In the background, Chicago mobsters such as Giancana and Rosselli lurked, seeking to use Sinatra to gain political influence. But the friendship between Kennedy and Sinatra diminished as the president became aware of the risks. Hoover had a private lunch with Kennedy in March 1962, at which it is believed the issue of his relationship with Sinatra was discussed. For his part, Sinatra reportedly flew into a rage when he heard that Kennedy had abandoned plans to stay at his California estate that year. The star had spent a considerable sum renovating the home to accommodate presidential visits. But JFK had opted to stay with Bing Crosby instead.ERA OF MOB RULEFRANK Sinatra’s alleged Mafia connections came at a time of unparalleled mob power.

The Mafia’s control of unions in the construction and shipping industries was near total, and from the 1950s until the mid-1970s, every major building project in New York City was said to be under mobsters’ direction. Union bosses were threatened or paid off to ensure control of labourers, who could be used to slow or halt a construction project if developers were slow to make pay-offs. Union pension funds were also plundered. The mob’s influence waned during a federal crackdown following the 1975 disappearance of the double-dealing Teamsters union leader Jimmy Hoffa, a former ally who fell out with senior Mafia figures over the extortion of union funds. Early Las Vegas casinos such as the Flamingo, the Desert Inn, the Sands and the Sahara were built with Mafia money and soon became goldmines, the revenues from gambling and prostitution rackets helping to bankroll the mob’s activities for decades after the Second World War. Frank Sinatra was given a 9 per cent stake in the Sands hotel by his underworld friends and he and fellow members of the mob-connected Rat Pack performed regularly to packed houses. Today’s major casino-hotels are legitimately owned and any hint of a link to organised crime would result in an owner losing a gambling licence.

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