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From There To Eternity: Frank Sinatra and Twin Palms

22 November 2015

December 15 marks the centenary of the birth of Francis Albert Sinatra – a skinny kid from Hoboken, New Jersey, who went on to conquer the world. But it wasn’t always plain sailing and Twin Palms estate was the backdrop to some of his most turbulent years.

In 1947 Frank Sinatra was at a personal and professional crossroads. Until the mid-1940s it had seemed he could do no wrong and was an untouchable star in a glittering firmament. Then, rather abruptly, it all appeared to fade.

In the very same year, he bought Twin Palms Estate in California. It was to be his home until 1954 and his life there spans a traumatic period of immense change for the young crooner. and, as such, represents one the most interesting periods of his life.

In post-war America, the stars of the silver screen were untouchable and impossibly glamourous, their image, and every move, stage-managed by the studios that all but owned their careers. Forget, for a moment, the toupeed 1970s Sinatra singing My Way – a song he apparently detested performing – and think instead of a slightly built young man in his early thirties oozing charisma, melancholy and joie de vivre in equal measure.

Sinatra was the boy next door who, during the war years, had won the hearts of millions of young female fans missing their sweethearts. Twice called-up for military service, he was twice failed on medical grounds, having had a perforated eardrum from birth. So Frank was the guy who didn’t leave, the guy who interpreted into song the sentiments sent home in letters from far-flung military bases abroad.

Sinatra was a superstar long before the term was coined. Indeed, his fame was such that he had to be ferried to and from concerts in the back of an ambulance as it was the only way of getting him safely and anonymously through hordes of swooning fans. By 1946 he was selling in excess of 10 million records a year – the greatest pop singer of his generation.

All eyes and ears were on him and his like wouldn’t be seen again until Elvis and The Beatles. From Big Band crooner to instantly recognisable star in his own right, Sinatra ploughed his own furrow. An obsessive workaholic and perfectionist, despite being unable to read music he absorbed musical techniques from those he worked with, such as Tommy Dorsey, whose band he had fronted. Sinatra’s unique style and delivery transfixed audiences in a way no other performer could hope to achieve. The key, at least to Sinatra, was that he meant it. “When I sing,” he once said, “I believe, I’m honest.”

It was no surprise that, in the early 1940s, the movies beckoned. On celluloid he could perform in relative peace and hone his craft even further. Radio star to movie star is not an easy transition, however. Many tried, few succeeded. And Sinatra wasn’t necessarily big screen material. He was slim, not a natural dancer and had no formal acting training.

He was also badly scarred on the left side of his face and neck – a legacy from forceps used in what had been a traumatic birth. What he did have was blinding ambition and self-belief. Sinatra believed that acting and singing were pretty much the same thing. It was all about control, delivery and authenticity.

Behind all this was Sinatra the family man who’d married his sweetheart from New Jersey, Nancy Barbato, in February 1939. Kids followed, his daughter Nancy born in June 1940, his son Frank Jr in January 1944. A second daughter, Tina, would follow in June 1948. The family lived in a relatively modest home at Hasbrouck Heights in the neighbourhood where he and his wife had grown up.

Despite being a devoted father, Sinatra’s extra-marital activities were already the stuff of legend. Having signed to MGM – home to the blockbuster musicals of the day – Sinatra increasingly spent more time in Hollywood. Reputed to have pocketed a $1 million pay cheque, ‘The Voice’, as he was known, went on the lookout for a California home, a weekend bolthole away from prying eyes. Just a couple of hours drive from LA the desert resort of Palm Springs, with its tropical climate and a sanctuary for Hollywood’s elite since the 1930s, was the perfect location.

In May 1947 Sinatra swaggered into the offices of Palm Springs architects Williams, Williams & Williams and struck up a conversation with the youngest partner, E Stewart Williams. Frank wanted a house, a grandiose Georgian-style mansion befitting his star status. Money was no object. Naturally enough the novice architect accepted the commission, but had other plans in mind.

The wily Williams presented two drafts, one for the Georgian residence originally requested, the other a cutting-edge light-filled ultra-modern home complete with a swimming pool in the shape of a grand piano. Who knows what swung Sinatra’s decision, but the gamble paid off. Work began almost immediately. There was just one catch: the entire project had to be completed by Christmas, as Sinatra was planning on throwing a party at his new home – and nobody said no to Frank.

Amazingly this huge undertaking, to be completed in just seven months, was Stewart Williams’ first residential commission. Floodlights were brought in and construction continued around the clock. Against all odds and at a cost of more than $150,000 – roughly $1.6 million today – the project was finished in time for Sinatra and his pals to ring in the New Year.

The 4,500 square foot, four-bedroomed house was fully air-conditioned, a rarity those days, even in the desert. Lines were clean and horizontal. Williams created a building in harmony with its unique surroundings as well as a bold modernist statement – the epitome of easy living Hollywood style.

To this day Twin Palms stands the test of time. Light floods the spacious rooms, which are all kitted out in period furnishings – not the original pieces owned by Sinatra, but wholly in keeping with the property’s ambience and history. Best of all is the original Valentino recording equipment in the living room.

Here Sinatra would lay down tracks and beam them over to Capitol Records via the antenna still to be seen on the roof. Throughout, as you’d expect, there’s plenty of Sinatra memorabilia and even some original artwork. You can dip into an extensive library of his music too, best appreciated while sinking a sundowner out by the pool. Surely there’s no better way to get under Sinatra’s skin, even if only for a fleeting moment.

The legendary pool lies at the heart of the complex, but put aside the vision of young kids splashing about while Frank and Nancy keep a watchful eye. Conjure up, instead, an image of Marilyn Monroe taking her morning dip. She, amongst others such as future Rat Pack members Sammy Davis Jr and Dean Martin, were regular visitors.

Humphrey Bogart, too, was a close friend and would drop by for drinks when Sinatra raised his flag out in the garden – the signal that it was party time. The two palm trees, after which Sinatra named the property, have thankfully survived the decades. Almost impossibly tall now, they continue to hold a magical sway. Myths abound, it’s impossible to separate fact from fiction and the walls of Twin Palms won’t divulge their secrets and rat on Frank.

What is known however is that any attempt at domestic bliss didn’t last. It was never going to. Enter the ultimate femme fatale: Hollywood bombshell Ava Gardner.

Sinatra’s explosive relationship with Ava Gardner could have been the beginning of the end. In fact it was the end of the beginning. Frank fell head-over-heels for her. She was all that mattered, it was that simple. In 1948 the news went public and divorce from Nancy inevitably followed. Twin Palms ceased to be a family home and Gardner moved in.

The relationship proved tempestuous from the start. The sink in the master bedroom still bears the scar, a crack in the porcelain, from a champagne bottle hurled at Gardner by Sinatra. On another occasion it’s said that he dumped all her belongings onto the drive after she’d tried to catch him in a liaison with fellow Hollywood star Lana Turner. But Sinatra couldn’t tame Gardner it seems. She gave as good as she got, and more. Perhaps too it didn’t help that, suddenly, Sinatra’s star appeared to fade.

Record sales plummeted, he was seen as being washed-up, a has-been. His new TV show on CBS bombed and was taken off the air in 1952. He begged for a supporting role in From Here To Eternity (1953) and, with Gardner’s help – her fame was blossoming at the time – eventually landed it. The meagre $8,000 fee was a far cry from the MGM millions of just a few years previously, but Sinatra went on to storm the part of Private Angelo Maggio, a role he felt destined to play.

The Oscar For Best Supporting Actor bore testament to his performance and marked the beginning of his resurgence. At Twin Palms Sinatra would eventually reinvent himself. A new, stronger voice would emerge with a depth and resonance that spoke equally, if not more so, to men as well as women. It was a voice that told of heartache, regret and love irretrievably lost.

No longer that of youthful aspiration and sentimentality, it was the voice of experience. Sinatra’s marriage to Gardner lasted barely three years, although they wouldn’t divorce until 1957, the year he sold Twin Palms.

Words: Andrew Birbeck

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