You can croon all you want about the 50’s, but mostly you’d be singing through your ears. For all the gray-flannel comfort you might take in those days — in the Tupperware parties, the batting blasts of Mickey Mantle, and the smiling, grandfatherly figure of Ike — you’d also have to sing about Joe McCarthy, segregated restrooms, and the Rosenbergs getting the chair.
But by 1962, things were looking up. Jack Kennedy was ruling in Camelot and Cadillacs had perfect fins. Notwithstanding the Bay of Pigs disaster, the country seemed to be gaining confidence. Even in my home town of Richfield, New York — an enclave of about 18,000 mostly blue – collar Italians and Poles — we could feel the sunshine of change on our faces. My father’s furniture business was booming, my mother had just taken a new administrative job at our synagogue, and my brother Morrie was about to head off to Cornell. Even my younger sister, Lori, seemed to be settling in, after a period of nasty confrontations with my father, who had refused to let her have a dog. I was twelve years old, asthmatic, and insufferably bookish, but I was happy. I had managed to find a group of equally insufferable, bookish kids to hang around with, and — though I had yet to be bar mitzvahed — I was already eyeing college and medical school. I would never have believed, in the summer of that sparkling year, that my family would soon face the most exquisite humiliation — much less that Frank Sinatra would wind up saving our Jewish hide.
Of course, there was antisemitism in Richfield, and I saw my share of it at Richfield High. It came mostly from the young scions of the town’s upper-crust, who regularly egged the Jewish kids’ lockers, or left ominous notes in our lunch boxes. ( My friend Howie Gelber was thus informed, “90% of Jewish kids go to college. The rest die horrible deaths in the locker room. Be careful, yid.” ). The Italian and Polish kids were greatly feared, but their attitude toward the five Jewish kids in school was one of amused, Olympian indifference: since they could beat us up with such surpassing ease, harassment was hardly worth their time.
There was, in fact, a peculiar affinity between the Jews and the Italians in our town. My father used to joke, “The Italians are one of the 12 Lost Tribes,” and, “The Jews and the Italians — smothered in the same pot!” I suppose he meant that both our tribes struggled in the thick minestrone of food, family, and feelings. My father was actually good friends with Anthony Marchese, the owner of “Tony’s Roman Room” — the premier Italian restaurant in Genesee County. Legend had it that Tony had built the main rotunda of the restaurant from imported Italian marble, using workmen flown in from his ancestral village in Sicily. Like Tony himself, the Roman Room was big, showy, and preposterous. Here, in tiny Richfield — home to the annual “Onion Queen Festival” and Richfield Turf Farms — you could surround yourself in an Ionic colonnade and grow fat on manicotti, serenaded by three Italian tenors in dinner jackets. Carved in Roman-looking letters on the entablature of the colonnade was Tony’s motto: “It’s always a beautiful day!”
All this was before the fiasco that befell my father, and which bound him to Tony Marchese in ways my family did not understand. In late November of 1962 — a year before they scraped Kennedy off the seat of that big Lincoln Continental — my father’s business nearly went down the toilet. Although he was good at selling furniture, Jacob Pinsky was naïve about the world of high-finance. He got involved (as my brother, the future lawyer, explained it to me) in some kind of Ponzi scheme, wherein “a fraudulent multi- level marketing program” led to my father’s losing over $150,000. He did his best to keep all this from the family, but his blanched, lip-biting expression every evening at dinner told the story. Then, one night — as if a demon had slipped suddenly out of his twisted mouth — my father looked relaxed and radiant. “How would you kids like to go to “The North Pole” this weekend?” he asked, beaming, knowing full-well our reaction. (This was a sort of amusement park-cum-Christmas village, just north of Richfield, and the only concession granted the Pinsky kids, by way of acknowledging the arch-goyishe holiday).
None of us understood the nature of my father’s abrupt transformation — though my mother’s mirthless smiles told me that she knew something was up. But before we could analyze the situation, my family found itself caught up in a new drama: my father was suddenly charged with bringing Frank Sinatra to Tony’s Roman Room.
Now, you need to understand: my father was a devoted fan of Sinatra his entire life. As a teenager, I would hear him crooning “Strangers in the Night “in the car, in the shower, and anywhere else he could get away with it. ( Actually, my father had quite a decent singing voice, and had even sung once in our Temple’s production of “Fiddler.” ). But fan or not, it was hard to figure why my father would put himself in the precarious position of trying to recruit “The Chairman of the Board”–as Sinatra was known in the early 60s, just after he started his own recording label, Reprise Records.
I say “precarious” for several reasons. First, there were the perennial rumors linking Sinatra with organized crime. “He’s mobbed up!” Herb Feigl had complained to my father, just after Friday night services at Temple Shalom. “Why are you getting mixed up with this groisser gornisht, Jake?
“Don’t tell me Sinatra is a good-for-nothing!” my father replied heatedly. “First of all, Feigl, nobody has ever proven that the man is mobbed up. Second of all, did you know that Frank Sinatra has spoken out against anti-semitism? Did you know that he’s got a valet named Jacobs, a Jew and a Negro, no less? And Sinatra flies this man Jacobs to Israel and has him bar mitzvahed!”
The mob issue aside — and notwithstanding my father’s robust defense of Sinatra–there were other risks involved. My father’s devotion to this groisser gornisht goy began to generate a peculiar backlash among some of the congregants of Temple Shalom. Five or six of the older men — and Herb Feigl was clearly the ring-leader — began to speak disparagingly of my father. Coming out of services one Friday night, I overheard Feigl murmuring something to Izzy Cohen. Not understanding, I asked Morrie later that night to explain. He shook his head from side to side, and whistled derisively through his teeth. “They think Dad’s an Uncle Tom for fawning over Tony Marchese and Frank Sinatra.” I didn’t yet know the precise literary reference, but I knew that my father was the object of ridicule, and that my face was flushed with vicarious humiliation.
It turned out my father was right: George Jacobs was Sinatra’s valet for about fifteen years, between 1953 and 1968. My father was also right about Jacobs’ lineage: a black man born in New Orleans, who apparently had come to Judaism late in life. It seemed obvious enough to my father that the road to snagging Sinatra led through George Jacobs. There followed, inevitably, a flurry of letters and phone calls between my father and Jacobs, all in the period of a few weeks in late November. All over our house, I saw scribbled notes in my mother’s hand, indicating, “George called…urgent!” or “Call back George re: time of performance.” Jacobs had sent my father a glossy, autographed photo of Frank Sinatra, his arm draped around the smiling valet. Not to be outdone, my father sent George a picture of a smiling Jake Pinsky, photographed next to Rocky Marciano — a trophy from the days when my father used to hang out at Kushner’s Hotel in the Catskills, schmoozing with the pro boxers. There were also calls back and forth between my father and Tony Marchese. During these conversations, my father’s brow would furrow into a sort of “M” configuration, and his voice would become tight and irritable. He had a bad habit of chewing his lip when he was under pressure, and I could see him biting down hard with every call from Marchese — who, evidently, was not having a “beautiful day.”
Astoundingly, by early December, everything seemed to be coming together. “This George Jacobs is a mensch,” my father announced one evening at supper, slapping his hand down on the dinner table. “He’s done it! Arranged everything. Old Blue Eyes is coming to Tony’s Roman Room in two weeks.”
Now, you can say what you want about Richfield, New York — hick-town, Podunk, glorified turf farm–but an appearance by Frank Sinatra was a big deal. The Italian community was understandably elated. Purple mimeographs went up all over town, especially on the bulletin boards of St. Joseph’s Church, Cappiolla’s delicatessen, Biondi’s Bakery, and the numerous Italian social clubs throughout our little town. The Jews, as you might expect, were decidedly cool about the whole deal. While Sinatra definitely had his fans among our people, the whole affair had a fishy smell to it, so far as our congregation was concerned. When Herb Feigl and his cronies passed my father and me in the hallway of the synagogue, their faces bore the self-satisfied smirks of people who “knew something.”
The night of December 17th arrived in a nasty mix of lake-effect snow and freezing rain. My father was decked out in a formal dinner jacket, while my brother and I wore our best suits. My sister and mother had gotten “look-alike” permanents at Betty’s Beauty Shoppe, despite my sister’s protestations. Even with the bad weather, the Roman Room was filled to capacity, which meant, in those benighted years, a choking haze of smoke that burned my eyes and stunk up my clothes. A lobster-faced Tony Marchese sauntered over to our table and, with a rush of whiskey-breath, crooned into our faces, “It’s a beautiful day!” My father sat perfectly still, folding his mouth into a tight smile.
The opening act was a local boy, Joey Battaglia, who was only a few years older than my brother. Joey had been in “County Chorus” during his years at Richfield High, and often sang at variety shows put on by St. Theresa’s Church. As we feasted on veal parmigiana, tortellini, lasagna, and meatballs, “Joey B.” went through a medley of Italian favorites, ending with a schmaltzy piece Morrie immediately identified as “Nessum Dorma.”
Then the waiting began. The crowd was pretty well liquored, and that undoubtedly held them through the first half-hour or so. Tony himself took the mike, and tried his hand at a few Italian jokes, most of which bombed. It was 8:45 — Sinatra had been expected to take the stage at 8:00. I could see my father’s scrunched up smile slowly metamorphosing into a grim-looking slit. Tony Marchese came by our table, but this time, there was no “beautiful day” malarkey. Instead, he whispered something into my father’s ear that instantly drew the life force from his face. My father flagged down the waiter and ordered a martini, finishing it almost as soon as it arrived. Beads of sweat had started to form above his upper lip, which he had compressed between his upper and lower incisors.
Then the comments began — murmurs, at first, then rumblings. It was hard to tell whether they were directed at anyone in particular, or were merely the generalized ruminations of a peevish and disappointed crowd. But as these jibes became more clearly audible to me and my family, I could feel a creeping tingle on the back of my neck.
“Can you believe this garbage?”
“Well, what did you expect? You know who was handling…”
“Yeah, well, ask a stupid Jew to deliver Sinatra, and…”
“I hear this Pinsky was hard up…made some sort of deal…”
“I paid forty bucks for tickets to this…”
“Hey, you know why Jews have big noses? Because the air is free!”
From the group sitting next to us, we heard the first insult directed specifically at my father. “Hey, Pinsky!” a portly man with thick, black horn-rim glasses shouted, “Aricchi Du Porcu!” This was followed by gales of laughter from the surrounding tables.
Even Morrie, who prided himself on his linguistic skills, just shrugged his shoulders at these Sicilian expletives, but there was no mistaking their tone. Soon the rumblings escalated into that cliché of protest you see in prison movies: the patrons began banging their silverware on the table.
“Jake,” my mother said in a quavering voice, “I don’t want the kids here for this. Let’s go.”
My father said nothing, but immediately nodded to us in affirmation. As we shuffled out of the dining room to hoots and catcalls, Tony Marchese suddenly blocked my father’s way.
“Pinsky!” he hissed, only inches from my father’s face, “I loan you fifty grand to save your little furniture store, and this is what you do to me? I’m ruined! Who did you deal with, anyway?”
My father could barely expel enough air to speak, but managed the words, “George Jacobs. I had it all arranged with Jacobs.”
Marchese snorted. “You arrange a gig with that colored shoe-shine boy Sinatra keeps around? Whaddya you, stunata? Get out of here!”
By this time, my mother had hustled my brother, my sister and me into the marble foyer that led to the main exit. My father quickly caught up with us, grabbed our coats without bothering to tip the irritated young lady in the coat-check room, and led us out into the freezing night. The parking lot was covered with a treacherous glaze of ice, and our car already had an inch of heavy, wet snow on it. As my father shooed us all in, scraping frantically at the windshield, a noisy throng began to mill around us. Again, the taunts and insults flew.
“Hey, Pinsky, you couldn’t organize a belch at a spaghetti supper!”
“Pinsky, you run a show about as good as you run that furniture store!”
The first snowball hit my sister’s window and disintegrated harmlessly. The second projectile — evidently, wet snow packed around a large rock — shattered the rear window on the driver’s side of our car, and nearly struck my brother in the head. Thankfully, he had bent to tie his shoe just as glass fragments exploded above him.
I guess I always pictured Frank Sinatra in a red Cadillac Coupe de Ville — maybe a “stretch” version of the 1960 model, which still had those huge, swept-back tailfins. So in the midst of all this chaos, I hardly noticed the rather subdued, black Imperial sedan that was gingerly inching its way into the crowd, its entry punctuated by short, sharp horn blasts. As the sedan approached our car, the driver’s window hummed down slowly, and a distinguished-looking black man gazed out at the melee.
“What in the name of …Jake? Jake Pinsky! Is that you, brother?” The voice was a rich baritone, imbued with the twang of rural Louisiana.
My father was so stunned, he did not register that the man he had corresponded with so assiduously over the past month — George Jacobs — was only about five feet away from him, smiling broadly; and that Jacobs’ boss, Old Blue Eyes, was nearly as close. By now, the ugly-minded crowd outside Tony’s Roman Room had not only calmed down — it had nearly fallen silent.
The back window of the big Imperial rolled down, and a thin, rather haggard-looking figure leaned his head out. The voice was New Jersey honey, with a whiskey chaser. “Plane got caught in the snowstorm, folks. Hey, pal — if you’re Jake, you did a good job. Say hi to Tony, will ya? And tell him I’m sorry — got a big bash in New York in three hours. Let’s get outta here, George.”
Jacobs frowned at this, and I thought I detected a look of embarrassment on his weathered face, as he glanced over at my father. The Imperial’s windows rolled up, and the big sedan eased its way out of the parking lot.
As the crowd dispersed, there followed a few murmurs of “Sorry, Jake,” and “It wasn’t your fault,” and “Hey, you heard Sinatra, leave Pinsky alone.” My father — whose face had looked like a blanched grape a few minutes earlier–now wore the beatific expression of a man who had just been blessed by the God of his Fathers.
As we drove home, my brother — who liked to put things in a historical context–turned to me and said, “Francis Albert Sinatra, Savior of the Jews.”
Ronald Pies MD, is a physician in the department of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine. Dr. Pies is the author of a collection of short stories (Zimmerman’s Tefillin/PublishAmerica) and a book of poetry (Creeping Thyme/Brandylane Publishers). He is also the author of The Ethics of the Sages: An Interfaith Commentary on Pirke Avot (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000). Dr. Pies has studied rabbinics with Prof. Ruth Sandberg at Gratz College, and is interested in the connection between Judaism and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.
Reprinted with permission. This article originally appeared in Mima’amakim.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.