Gay Talese’s 1966 “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” is often held up as the finest bit of journalism, or at least celebrity journalism, in U.S. history. As the back story goes, Talese, writing for Esquire, was not given access to the Chairman of the Board, and assembled his mammoth–like, 15,000 words worth of mammoth–essay on Sinatra by essentially stalking him: watching Ol’ Blue Eyes deal with his handlers, hangers-on and loved ones over the course of several weeks.
The essay helped birth the New Journalism movement, where scribes like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson could immerse themselves in a subculture, keep their notepads packed away, and tell the story in a creative way that probably involved making up a quote or two in capturing the mood.
In “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” Sinatra is approaching 50, is run down, and pretty darn cranky–whether he’s shooting pool with another cheery soul, Leo Durocher, or mocking screenwriter Harlan Ellison for daring to wear workman’s boots in the back room of Sinatra’s favorite L.A. watering hole.
One player in the Sinatra story is his press agent, Jim Mahoney. Let’s face it–Mahoney has a tough job, managing image for the sensitive and super-high-strung Sinatra, and cleaning up after the various messes left behind by “Il Padrone.”
At this point in the essay, Sinatra–and Mahoney–are peeved about Walter Cronkite’s Sinatra documentary on CBS that sinatra and Mahoney went over the line in terms of what Cronkite could ask about.
The ever-stressed Mahoney finds solace in a tiny toy train–a memento from Sinatra’s film Von Ryan’s Express–that he keeps rolling in a miniature strip of track.
IT WAS THE MORNING AFTER. It was the beginning of another nervous day for Sinatra’s press agent, Jim Mahoney. Mahoney had a headache, and he was worried but not over the Sinatra-Ellison incident of the night before. At the time Mahoney had been with his wife at a table in the other room, and possibly he had not even been aware of the little drama. The whole thing had lasted only about three minutes. And three minutes after it was over, Frank Sinatra had probably forgotten about it for the rest of his life — as Ellison will probably remember it for the rest of his life: he had had, as hundreds of others before him, at an unexpected moment between darkness and dawn, a scene with Sinatra.
It was just as well that Mahoney had not been in the poolroom; he had enough on his mind today. He was worried about Sinatra’s cold and worried about the controversial CBS documentary that, despite Sinatra’s protests and withdrawal of permission, would be shown on television in less than two weeks. The newspapers this morning were full of hints that Sinatra might sue the network, and Mahoney’s phones were ringing without pause, and now he was plugged into New York talking to the Daily News’s Kay Gardella, saying: “…that’s right, Kay…they made a gentleman’s agreement to not ask certain questions about Frank’s private life, and then Cronkite went right ahead: ‘Frank, tell me about those associations.’ That question, Kay — out! That question should never have been asked….”
As he spoke, Mahoney leaned back in his leather chair, his head shaking slowly. He is a powerfully built man of thirty-seven; he has a round, ruddy face, a heavy jaw, and narrow pale eyes, and he might appear pugnacious if he did not speak with such clear, soft sincerity and if he were not so meticulous about his clothes. His suits and shoes are superbly tailored, which was one of the first things Sinatra noticed about him, and in his spacious office opposite the bar is a red-muff electrical shoe polisher and a pair of brown wooden shoulders on a stand over which Mahoney can drape his jackets. Near the bar is an autographed photograph of President Kennedy and a few pictures of Frank Sinatra, but there are none of Sinatra in any other rooms in Mahoney’s public-relations agency; there once was a large photograph of him hanging in the reception room but this apparently bruised the egos of some of Mahoney’s other movie-star clients and, since Sinatra never shows up at the agency anyway, the photograph was removed.
Still, Sinatra seems ever present, and if Mahoney did not have legitimate worries about Sinatra, as he did today, he could invent them — and, as worry aids, he surrounds himself with little mementos of moments in the past when he did worry. In his shaving kit there is a two-year-old box of sleeping tablets dispensed by a Reno druggist — the date on the bottle marks the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra, Jr. There is on a table in Mahoney’s office a mounted wood reproduction of Frank Sinatra’s ransom note written on the aforementioned occasion. One of Mahoney’s mannerisms, when he is sitting at his desk worrying, is to tinker with the tiny toy train he keeps in front of him — the train is a souvenir from the Sinatra film, Von Ryan’s Express; it is to men who are close to Sinatra what the PT-109 tie clasps are to men who were close to Kennedy — and Mahoney then proceeds to roll the little train back and forth on the six inches of track; back and forth, back and forth, click-clack-click-clack. It is his Queeg-thing.
Now Mahoney quickly put aside the little train. His secretary told him there was a very important call on the line. Mahoney picked it up, and his voice was even softer and more sincere than before. “Yes, Frank,” he said. “Right…right…yes, Frank….”
When Mahoney put down the phone, quietly, he announced that Frank Sinatra had left in his private jet to spend the weekend at his home in Palm Springs, which is a sixteen-minute flight from his home in Los Angeles. Mahoney was now worried again. The Lear jet that Sinatra’s pilot would be flying was identical, Mahoney said, to the one that had just crashed in another part of California.