Cocktail parties for the press usually precede major events and on this occasion it was the Foreign Press Awards ceremony at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. These were publicity opportunities for the participants that gave us a chance to get candid shots and mingle before the event. Frank Sinatra, always the center of attention, stood with Natalie Wood beside him getting ready to join Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, and otheres on the dais. Contrary to what some think, I found Sinatra respectful of the press at each encounter.
In 1964 a large contingency of news people camped outside Nancy Sinatra’s Bel Air home after their son, Frank Sinatra, Jr. was kidnapped, waiting for something to break. We had dogged the story for days and were tired, cold and hungry with no news of his whereabouts. Though divorced Sinatra showed up at her house regularly during this ordeal. Around midnight this particular night he paused briefly in his car at the base of the driveway to observe the sorry group as he talked to a security guard. A short time after he drove up to the house prominent restaurateur Charley Chasen arrived followed by two station wagons full of food. Chasen personally catered us, compliments of Frank Sinatra.
In the late 50’s Sinatra headlined the reopening of the Las Vegas Dune’s Hotel. An elaborate tent had been set up in the parking lot for the press with a full bar and generous selection of hors d’oeuvres. A festive Arabian nights’ theme was used for decorating the tent, complete with a live camel tied at the entrance. I hoisted a few with Frank and took the liberty of asking if he would do something different for the film story I was shooting for the Today show. Looking at the camel Frank responded, “Would you like me to come on stage riding that camel?” I didn’t believe he would, but he did.
The orchestra accompanied his entrance on the camel and the audience roared with enthusiasm. They loved it. I positioned myself center stage between the first row tables and shot Sinatra as he moved cautiously from the camel down a ladder stagehands provided while the handlers worked with the camel. Frank started singing, making jokes throughout. After a few jokes he leaned over the edge and said, “Gene. Your camera’s shaking.” I kept shooting but I couldn’t stop laughing.
After the show I went backstage where he graciously posed with Marlene Dietrich on his arm as they were leaving. The producers were ecstatic. They not only had Sinatra on the back of a camel on stage, but gorgeous Dietrich on his arm in front of a television camera. She usually shied away from TV exposure.
A friend of Sinatra’s, legendary comedian Ernie Kovacs, was killed in a tragic automobile accident in January 1962. I was assigned to cover the star-studded funeral in Beverly Hills, everyone in the entertainment world turned out to mourn his sudden death. Using a silent camera I worked fast catching as many celebrities on film as I could. They moved in clusters so I was only able to shoot about half of the overflow crowd entering, then I went to the other side of the church to capture those I had missed on their way out.
Walking backwards I filmed the crowd moving towards my camera, heading for their cars. Suddenly I felt something soft, unnatural under the heel of my shoe. Instinctively I knew I’d stepped on some unfortunate’s tendon. I gasped with horror at the wincing expression across Frank Sinatra’s face as I turned around. I apologized profusely thinking if he really was part of the Mafia, as some would have you believe, I’d be a dead man. He sloughed it off as an accident, said he understood I was just doing my job.
I paused and watched Sinatra as he walked down the long, lonely Beverly Hills alley and I couldn’t resist the shot. The network used it to close the report on Kovacs’ funeral that night: Frank Sinatra limping sadly away from his friend’s funeral.