Frank Sinatra is one of the greatest singers of all time, but there was a dark episode in his life that might have inspired a character in “The Godfather.”
On a summer evening of 1972 Mario Puzo, the acclaimed author of the best-seller The Godfather, attended a fancy dinner party after being invited by one of his millionaire friends. Little did he know, that party was going to turn into one of the most embarrassing moments in his life when his friend attempted to introduce him to the one and only Frank Sinatra.
According a piece Puzo wrote for The New York Magazine, the moment Sinatra was introduced to Puzo, his countenance changed immediately. During what became a really awkward situation, the famous singer expressed his immediate disdain towards the author, to what the latter just responded by saying, “Listen, it wasn’t my idea.” However, Sinatra understood something quite different. And this is the core of the entire, shall we call it, beef. Turns out, Sinatra was so furious with Puzo regarding the similarities one of his characters had with him, that tried to sue the author. Frank Sinatra is probably one of the most famous musicians of all time thanks to his peculiar, strong and romantic voice, his dapper style, and appealing personality. But behind his story of success, there seems to be a dark subplot that’s a kind of open secret. It's his connection with the Mafia. Though he tried to silence these rumors (as he called them) his entire life, one of the strongest evidence against him was perhaps the way he reacted towards The Godfather and the character of Johnny Fontane, Vito Corleone’s godson and pop star. Let’s first go back to the story.
Sinatra rose to popularity in the forties but his interest in music came at a very young age. His parents used to own a bar in New Jersey where he was allowed to sing a song every now and then. After dropping out of school, he started working small jobs including performing at bars in both New Jersey and New York. Sinatra joined a band called the 3 Flashes in 1935, but his real hit came in 1938 when he started performing live at a radio show in New York. This led to him to recording his first songs and to start making connections.
While there’s no specific information on how these alleged links to the Mafia began, some have traced them back to his golden years in the forties through his connections and friendships with some well-known mobs at the time. One of his first connections to organized crime might’ve been with Mafia boss Willie Moretti, who is said to have helped him get out of a really bad contract with Tommy Dorsey, one of Sinatra’s first bandmates. There are tons of stories like this in which Sinatra was associated with huge mob personalities to help him get out of determined situation or to make bigger career moves (much like Johnny Fontane does in The Godfather). On top of that, these stories constantly made it to the newspapers for decades. But perhaps the most important one was the really close friendship he had with Sam Giancana, the Chicago Outfit boss.
One of the stories you often hear is that Sinatra even had a relationship with the Kennedys in order to allow Giancana to cash in some favors with the Administration. The Kennedys suddenly broke all connections to Sinatra, allegedly after finding out about Sinatra’s association with the organized crime through FBI’s leader J. Edgar Hoover. This, of course, seems a bit odd since stories about Sinatra’s friendship with some of these characters had been out for years and, let's not forget, the Kennedy’s were known for his family’s origins in the bootlegging business.
What we now know is the FBI had opened a file on Sinatra since the forties, one that would collect more than 2,000 pieces of evidence that investigate Sinatra and these famous connections. Despite the effort and surveillance he endured for decades, which went on until his death in 1998, Sinatra was never indicted nor tried considering most of these connections were more on a social level rather than criminal activities, which doesn’t necessarily mean these were only rumors.
Now, if we take a look to Puzo’s character, the resemblance is uncanny. You can kind of understand why Sinatra would have tried to sue the bestselling author. Johnny Fontane was a humble young man with a great talent wanting to make a living out of his music. In his quest to succeed at show business, a producer tricks him into signing a contract that would make him work really hard without getting much money. Fontane’s luck changes when he becomes one of Vito Corleone’s most beloved godsons.
Much like Fontane, Sinatra's mysterious rescinding out of several disadvantageous contracts were well known. So were some of the connections with different gangsters. In addition to that, he also was able to pursue a career as an actor (quite mediocre if you ask me), and became a very influential personality in Hollywood. Now, while Puzo never actually acknowledge Sinatra's influence on his character, the resemblance is kind of obvious. Even Francis Ford Coppola (the film adaptation's director) once mentioned that “obviously Johnny Fontane was inspired by a kind of Frank Sinatra character.”
Both Frank Sinatra’s life and career had several dark moments. Aside from his connections with the Mafia, he wasn’t a particularly ethic-driven man. What is quite interesting is that he was truly a talented man with an impressive vocal range that would’ve probably achieved that legendary status without anyone's help. But, hey, that’s the deal with these people, they have a dark past that ends up adding to the narrative of a music icon.