One evening in New York, many years ago, Frank Sinatra stood at a window on a high floor of the Waldorf Astoria. He gazed across the Hudson River to the city of his birth. “It’s a lot farther from over there to here,” he mused to his friend the songwriter Jimmy Webb, “than it is from here to there.”
Over there, as he called Hoboken, was where that long, hard climb began, when he was young, hungry for success, convinced he was a genius. He’d risen, and fallen, and picked himself up again more than once since then. But that night he was at the pinnacle of show business, an original, nobody else like him. And yet it sounded like he was warning his friend Jimmy how suddenly a man could fall back, how fast the fickle American public’s adoration could turn to anger.
Or was he saying that even though many in Hoboken felt he’d abandoned them, the city was never as far from his heart as they thought?
Sinatra’s Hoboken is gone, of course. The fog of winter coal smoke has lifted. The cobbled streets are paved over and don’t smell of manure. Steamship horns moan less often in the river mist. The first-generation Irish and Germans who’d beat up the Italians west of Willow Avenue are gone. Software designers and Wall Streeters start the work day caffeinating at Starbucks, not curing their hangovers with a mug of hot clam juice from the urn at the old Clam Broth House. The waterfront, once crowded with ocean liners and freighters and swarming with longshoremen in caps and baling hooks around their necks, is now a genteel, shady promenade where Hoboken moms push expensive baby strollers and sun worshippers sprawl on the green lawn of a park made from an old pier.
Yet Sinatra is still everywhere in Hoboken. You can take a walking tour of the significant places in his biography. Get absorbed in the Historical Museum’s collection. Play his music on the jukebox at Leo’s Grandevous. Behind the cash registers in a lot of the older stores you’ll see a black-and-white picture, in a place of honor, signed “Love, Francis Albert.”
This year might be the biggest year Frank Sinatra will ever have in his native city. Hoboken’s centenary celebration will surely intensify the mixture of pride and soul—and longing. The tribute has already begun. The Department of Cultural Affairs, the Historical Museum, and the Library will all present events and exhibits to honor his memory. As Hoboken plans a whole year’s worth of events leading up to the singer’s 100th birthday on Dec. 12, the city seems a little like a tough, soulful dame he’d jilted long ago, but who can’t stop longing for him. Whether as Skinny Little Frankie, or the heartthrob of the Paramount, or the man who couldn’t tame Ava Gardner, or Maggio, or the Rat Pack hedonist, Frankie Machine, or Tony Rome, Hoboken will take Sinatra any way she can have him, because they’re both of the same soul, and like he did, she carries a chip on her shoulder the size of the state of New Jersey.
The velocity of fame—driven by the screaming of thousands of girls—propelled him to New York and Hollywood. The reasons that Sinatra spurned Hoboken have been repeated so often that they’ve become urban legends, whether true or apocryphal.
Opinions and memories differ on what happened the few times he did return.
Hoboken threw an official Frank Sinatra Day in October 1947, when his star was still rising. It was a gloomy day whose festivities were cut short by pouring rain, and he needed to rush to a benefit concert that night in New York. Reports have circulated ever since that people who felt he’d gotten uppity and figured he thought he was too good for them threw fruit at his parade, even though he told a radio interviewer on the scene that the people of Hoboken were wonderful.
The last time Sinatra sang publicly in Hoboken was in 1952 at the request of his father Marty, a city firefighter and amateur boxer, at the Union Club, at a fundraiser for the local of the International Firefighter’s union. The talk later was that an out-of-vogue Sinatra got upset when the kids wanted to dance instead of listen to him sing, got surly, delivered a cool performance, and left by a back door.
One moment when he might have returned to show Hoboken his acting chops slipped through his fingers. Elia Kazan almost cast Sinatra as Terry Malloy, the conscience- tormented hero of On the Waterfront, before deciding on Marlon Brando. “I think Frank would have been wonderful, but Brando seemed more vulnerable,” Kazan said later. “There was more self-doubt, more schism, more pain in Brando. With Frank it’s in there, but it’s deep down and he’s been able to cover it up too well.” Frank Sinatra, playing a character who drops a dime on gangsters? Let’s not even go there.
In 1963 he threw a 50th wedding anniversary party for Marty and Dolly, his quiet, gentle father and the indomitable mother he feared and revered and who provided crucial con- nections at key moments in his early career. People came away from the event at the Casino in the Park in Jersey City grumbling that Sinatra came in through the side door, ignored everyone, refused to pose for pictures, and worse, didn’t sing.
Even then, Hoboken’s fierce love for her native son remained undiminished. For years rumors circulated of Sinatra sightings, usually in the wee small hours of the morning, or of his limousine parked outside restaurants and stores whose delicacies he still favored.
He did slip back into town in 1982 to heal an old wound he’d inflicted when he threw a teenage tantrum at his Irish godfather, Frank Garrick, after whom the priest at his baptism had mistakenly named him instead of Marty. According to published accounts, the men reminisced about the old days in Hoboken and came to an awkward, but welcome, truce.
In 1984, Ronald Reagan campaigned for reelection in staunchly Democratic Hoboken. At the St. Ann’s festival he got a respectful welcome—the guy was president, after all—but the crowd really went wild when Frank Sinatra, the president’s friend from his Hollywood days, also stepped from the president’s car.
A year later, Sinatra’s last recorded visit to Hoboken was to receive an honorary doctorate from Stevens Institute of Technology, where the singer once claimed he used to jog the track and swim in the college’s pool to build up his lung capacity. Accounts of the event don’t specify what academic discipline he had mastered to receive such an honor, but Ol’ Blue Eyes PhD must’ve felt a long way from 1931, the year he quit A.J. Demarest High after 47 days.
Traces of old Hoboken will endure just as the sound of its street talk never quite left Sinatra’s diction. You can bet the city will never let the memory of him fade away. It’s more than just the publicity value of a celebrity citizen. Some essence of Hoboken always remained in Sinatra, the man Bruce Springsteen once called “the patron saint of New Jersey.” It was in his walk, the way he talked, and most of all, it was forever in his music. And as the man once sang, pal, the song is you.
07030, The Hoboken Magazine Spring 2015