“Take the Cookie”: I Meet the Sinatra Family.Posted: September 18, 2007
Peggy Lee died January 21, 2002. In February of that year, I was privileged (through the good graces of David Torresen, who runs peggylee.com and the Songbirds mailing list) to be invited to attend her memorial at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, CA. That morning, I drove by songwriter Lew Spence’s house to pick him up. (Lew wrote the Frank Sinatra hit “Nice n Easy,” which Peggy also recorded; along with another song Peggy made a wonderful record of, in the early fifties, “That’s Him Over There”; plus “Sleep Warm,” the Fred Astaire hit “That Face,” “I’ve Never Left Your Arms,” and many other good songs). When we arrived at the club and took our seats in the rows of chairs set up for the memorial, I recognized many luminaries. Steve Lawrence. Andy Williams in the row directly behind us. k.d. lang. Arranger Billy May. The lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman. Following the two-hour secular service, which contained speeches by several who knew Peggy and worked with her, as well as a video montage, a buffet lunch was served in one of the club’s ballrooms.
When Lew and I entered the luncheon ballroom, many had already chosen their spots at the round, unplacecarded tables of eight. I scanned the room for one that still had two empty seats. There weren’t many; and because Lew walks with a cane and I didn’t want to leave his side, I knew I’d be wise to locate a table with more than two vacancies, to increase the chances there’d still be two by the time we got there.
I spotted such a table, way on the other end of the room. It was only half-occupied.
I didn’t notice who the four people already sitting at the table were, because my eyes were fixed on those remaining seats. I had one goal, which was that Lew and I get across the room and claim two of them before they were gone.
We made it. My eyes still focused on the empty chairs, I attended to Lew, pulling out a chair for him, making sure he got into it comfortably. Only then did I look up to see the tablemates that we had joined.
Nancy Barbato Sinatra, the first and forever Mrs. Frank Sinatra.
Nancy’s older daughter, pop icon Nancy Sinatra.
I was lunching with 3/4ths of the surviving Frank Sinatra family. (Only Frank Jr. was missing.)
There are words to describe the vertiginous mix of abject awe and stunned disbelief (and, frankly, terror) that I experienced in that moment of realization, but I don’t know them. Suffice it to say that “flustered” doesn’t cut the mustard. I know these women put their pantyhose on one leg at a time, but come on. To say I had worshiped them all from afar might not be an overstatement. I worshiped them because if Frank Sinatra was my musical Zeus (and he was, and still is), then Nancy Sinatra Sr. is Hera, and Nancy Jr. and Tina are–OK, I’m getting confused. Let’s forget the particulars of Who’s Who in Greek Mythology, and leave it that if I ever wanted to reach any of these people, I would start by dialing 1-800-MT-OLYMPUS.
(Where does this adoration come from? All I know is, I love many singers, but Sinatra is the one I turn to most in my Hour of Need. Whether the need is to swing or feel sad. And he always has been, since I was eleven. Kind of weird, maybe, for a kid that age in 1961 to start collecting Sinatra instead of Dion, but there you go. He does have mythic status for me, there’s no way around that–as he does for a lot of people, as he once did for our entire culture.)
So, what do you say to a trio of goddesses who have descended from on high to share a meal with mortals? These women who, in the years since 1998 when Sinatra died, are the closest thing to meeting Sinatra that any of us can ever have?
You walk around the table (and luckily, I shifted out of deer-in-the-headlights mode fairly quickly in mortal-person time), extend your hand to Mrs. Sinatra (who looked fantastic, by the way), and say, in all sincerity, because you really do mean it with every humble fiber of your being, “Mrs. Sinatra, it is an honor to meet you.”
And she smiles, warmly, and you know—to your own surprise!–that she actually is gratified, and not just pretending to be.
This is the woman whom Frank Sinatra married in 1939. Who gave him all his children. The woman whose home, word has it, he returned to time and again through the years.
And then, you turn to Nancy the Daughter, and realize, thank God, that you actually do have something to say to her beyond “Oh my God, you’re Nancy Sinatra!,” which is to introduce her to Lew Spence, whom you have a hunch she has not met, a hunch which turns out to be right. “Nancy,” I said, “I want to introduce you to Lew Spence, who wrote ‘Nice n Easy’.” She is glad to meet him, smiles and says, “You know, I recorded that song, too.”
And then, you count your blessings that only a couple months ago you read Tina Sinatra’s memoir about her father (My Father’s Daughter: A Memoir), because this gives you something to say to Tina beyond “Hi, nice to meet you.” Further, you are grateful that it was a book you actually did admire, and found to be a valuable addition to the Sinatra literature, because this allows you in all sincerity to say, “I really enjoyed your book about your father,” and so you say that, and she seems gratified.
Now, Lew and I had not had the buffet yet, although the Sinatras had; a plate of cookies sat before Mrs. Sinatra. I was figuring to have a little chicken or whatever, so when Mrs. Sinatra held up the cookies and urged me to take one, I did something stupid. I hesitated. (I guess those years of “no dessert until you’ve eaten your supper” as a kid really took hold.) I politely said, “Oh no, no thank you.”
Nancy Sinatra said, “Take the cookie.”
I took the cookie.
Freud is famously thought to have said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” A cookie from a Sinatra, however, is something else. Why hadn’t I seen that? What an idiot! What a nincompoop! What a macaroon!
A cookie with layers of meaning.
And it was good.