When on February 4, 1939, Nancy Barbato married her sweetheart, a young man she’d met on the beach on the Jersey Shore when she was 15 years old, the couple was so poor they didn’t have much of a honeymoon.
They worked on fixing up their three-room Jersey City apartment, and after a couple of days, went back to their jobs: she as a secretary at a printing plant, he as a singing waiter.
As the wife of Frank Sinatra, over the next decade, her lifestyle would definitely change.
Nancy Sinatra, the first of the famous entertainer’s four wives and mother of his children, has died at the age of 101. Her older daughter, Nancy, announced on Twitter on June 13, 2018: “My mother passed away peacefully tonight at the age of 101. She was a blessing and the light of my life. Godspeed, Momma. Thank you for everything.”
Todd S. Purdum wrote in The Atlantic: “When Nancy Barbato Sinatra died at 101 on Friday, she took with her perhaps the last living link to a world that knew Frank Sinatra not as a legend but as an impossibly skinny fireman’s son from Hoboken, who would sing for a pack or two of cigarettes and a sandwich, but dreamed of more.”
During their early years of marriage, they were frequently broke. Nancy kept house, cooked Italian meals from scratch, gave birth to three children, and supported her husband in every way possible.
Her youngest daughter, Tina Sinatra, wrote in her memoir: “The country was still waist deep in the Depression and Dad was dreaming his dream — of becoming the biggest singer in the world — long before it seemed plausible.
His parents slapped down his grand ideas; everyone mocked him, except for Nancy Barbato. From that first moment, she shared Dad’s dream and became a part of it. In a time of widespread discouragement, these two young people were earnest and optimistic. They were sure they would make it, together.”
Once Frank Sinatra achieved his first fame in the 1940s, his wife answered his fan mail and sewed his trademark ties: extra large and floppy.
Tina Sinatra wrote: “I think this was the reason my father would hold Mom so close for the rest of his life — because she’d been there, without a negative word, from the start. Dad married his best friend. Later he’d say it was the best thing he’d ever done with his life if only he’d been able to stick with it.”
Said Sinatra’s longtime friend, Nick Servano, “There was something there, a bond between them.”
It was Sinatra’s chronic infidelity that put his wife through a lot of pain. “As the bobby-soxers went wild at the Paramount and my father bathed in adulation on a daily basis, she sensed him changing. ‘It went to his head,’ she said,” Tina wrote.
For years, Nancy Sinatra did what she could to ride out her husband’s indiscretions. Frank Sinatra won a movie contract in Hollywood and moved west. He brought his young family with him, but big-screen stardom and hit songs meant more adulation, and more affairs, such as with Lana Turner.
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None of the relationships seemed to threaten his marriage until he fell in love with Ava Gardner. Their stormy romance made headlines, and his wife found it harder and harder to handle the humiliation. When Sinatra asked her for a divorce, at first she refused. Eventually, she gave in. The two were divorced in 1951, with his wife receiving a generous financial settlement.
Sinatra married Ava Gardner and almost at once, his life took a turn for the worse. He lost his voice, and his film career sputtered. His second marriage did not work.
“In Ava, Dad had met his match,” Tina Sinatra wrote. “Their love affair may have been meant to be, but that doesn’t mean it was meant to work. These were two tautly strung, ambitious, restless people who could never quite be satiated.”
After two suicide attempts, Frank Sinatra’s career rebounded, and he became more famous that never, winning an Academy Award. The marriage to Ava failed, and he married twice more. But his first wife remained his confidante, by all accounts.
In the New York Times, her granddaughter, A. J. Lambert, is quoted as saying, “Throughout the many years after they split, my grandfather came to visit whenever his crazy life would allow it. I can remember times when she would be on the phone with her ex-husband, and the next thing I knew some eggplant was coming out of the freezer to thaw so that she could make him some sandwiches when he showed up.”
Sinatra considered reconciling with his first wife officially and remarrying her after his divorce from Mia Farrow.
According to Purdum, “But moments before the wedding [to Barbara Marx], he felt compelled to tell Nancy Jr. and Tina that he was torn. ‘I want you to know,’ he said, ‘that I’ve thought this over very carefully. I’ve thought a lot about Mother, and I really tried to make things work again with her, because it would have been great for all of us. I’ll always love her, but this is the right thing for me right now.’ ”
Nancy Sinatra never remarried.
Nancy Bilyeau, a former staff editor at Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and InStyle, has written a trilogy of historical thrillers for Touchstone Books. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com.