I always love how the Sierra Nevada ridgeline rises high on the horizon as you travel northeast on Highway 80 across the great Sacramento Valley floor. The mountains are dark and foreboding, and in spring, still snow-covered, majestic, and perhaps even mystical. Their distant grandeur always touches something deep within me.
It’s a late Friday afternoon in April of 1988, and my mother, Lindy, and I are driving in a small Ford coupe, on our way to Reno, as we begin making the ascent up the foothills, past Auburn and the first outcroppings of raw granite that define the Sierra landscape. There are still glistening white patches of snow on the ground, muddy near the highway, and there’s a bite to the wind as the sun sets behind us.
We are listening to AM radio, talk radio and later a baseball game, mixed in with casual conversation as we continue our climb through the foothill towns, past Donner Lake, until we pull into downtown Truckee for gas and some enchiladas at El Toro Bravo, the sister restaurant to our favorite haunt in Capitola. It feels good to stretch and take in the brisk mountain air.
My mother and I are chasing a few of her ghosts on this journey, and perhaps, a few of mine as well. She and my father were married in Reno, in August of 1951, where they had stayed at the Riverside Hotel for their brief honeymoon, and had listened to Frank Sinatra sing every night in the hotel’s ballroom. The next evening, 37 years later, my mother and I will be listening to Sinatra again, this time at Bally’s Resort and Casino, where he is headlining a series of shows in the casino’s spacious and upscale Ziegfeld Room.
Over dinner, my mother recounts a story about her honeymoon that she likes to tell. It’s become one of those pat narratives, but I try to nudge it a bit, break it free of the box she’s put it into.
“I was in the girls room,” she says, “and this woman, very lovely, comes up to me and tells me how beautiful I look, and what a beautiful dress I’m wearing. She looked so familiar that I thought she must have been a Santa Cruz girl.”
My mother was never good with names or faces. She could have a ditzy way about her, especially when she was young. She liked to laugh and toss her head back. Details were not her specialty.
After she came out, she told my father—her new husband, Frank Dunn—about her encounter in the “girls room.” She pointed to a table immediately behind her, on risers, and the woman who had paid her such a delightful compliment. I can only imagine my father’s look.
“A Santa Cruz girl, huh?” he responded sarcastically. She needn’t have told me the tone of his voice. I could hear it nearly four decades later. “That’s Ava Gardner,” he growled. “And that’s Sinatra sitting next to her.” They were less than 10 feet away.
My mother directs the story back to me. “I thought she was a Santa Cruz girl,” she says with her trademark chuckle at the end of the line, always upbeat. “How was I to know she was Ava Gardner?”
There’s a famous story by the great American writer Delmore Schwartz called “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” in which the author recalls a dream—a nightmare, really—of watching his parents on the screen in a movie theatre bumbling through the first horrifying days of their relationship. He screams out: “What are they doing? Don’t they know what they are doing?”
When I first read the story many years ago, I couldn’t help but think of my own parents and the stories I heard about their early courtship on the Santa Cruz waterfront. I couldn’t think of two more different personalities, two more different sensibilities—about life, about love, about everything that matters. “What are you doing?” I wanted to scream at them. “Don’t you know what you are doing?”
My parents were both in grief when they met, sometime in the summer of 1949, on Beach Street, not far from where my mother worked at the old Pleasure Pier. My father’s mother had just died of heart failure, and his father was to die the following spring. My mother’s father and her beloved eldest brother (only 42) would also die within the year, and, perhaps even more significantly, she was still recovering from the death of her fiancé, who had been killed in Italy during World War II.
My father was 24 at the time, my mother, a decade older. This still startles me when I write it. He always seemed—and looked—so much older than her that, when I was growing up, I thought it was the other way around.
They dated, got engaged, and decided to run away to Reno to get married in the summer of 1951. Did they fall in love along the way? Of that, I’m uncertain. I suppose my mother clearly did, but I don’t recall my father ever being all that loving during my childhood. Quite the contrary.
Born in the coal country of Western Pennsylvania, my father had a tough childhood during the Depression, joined the Navy at 16 years old, came west to serve in the Pacific fleet, and never looked back. He was working as an airline mechanic on the San Francisco Peninsula at the time. On weekdays, my mother sold cosmetics at a local pharmacy; on weekends she worked on the Pleasure Pier selling tickets for her family’s Speed Boat rides. She still lived at the family home on Bay Street with several of her adult siblings and her recently widowed mother.
My father had been around the block—around the world, for that matter. He was war-hardened, tough, a brawler. My mother had barely left Santa Cruz. She was a sweetheart. Everyone loved her.
Let me note that my old man was not a Sinatra fan. He was a bebop aficionado in his teens—Monk, Gillespie and Parker—and he loved the voices of Billie Holiday and, later, Carmen McRae. About the time he and my mother were married, he discovered the music of Milt Jackson and the Modern Jazz Quartet. Sinatra was way too pop for him, too mainstream. But he wasn’t taking my mom to the South Side of Chicago or to Harlem for their honeymoon. So Sinatra in Reno it was.
Aside from the Ava Gardner story, neither of my parents ever talked about their honeymoon. Ever. There were no mementos. No ticket stubs. But shortly before he died (and decades after my parents had divorced), my dad’s brother, my uncle Jim, sent me a pack of small photographs that my dad had sent him from the honeymoon. There were more than a dozen of them, black-and-white, all with snappy little captions written by my father.
There was also one larger image that served as my parents’ wedding photo. My father, a cigar in his left hand, is looking lovingly at my mother, while she looks off at an angle in the distance. (Later, after finding several Frank and Ava photos taken the same evening, I realized that Gardner’s braceleted wrist is hanging over my father’s left shoulder; Sinatra’s arm is above my mother’s head.) On the back of the photo my dad had written my uncle: “P.S. The ‘stogie’ was for you, junior.”
When they weren’t at the Riverside watching Sinatra, the photo set revealed that they had taken in the mining country around Virginia City, and later enjoyed some relaxing time at the lake. “Then we have Mrs. Dunn” my father wrote, “who once said of Lake Tahoe—Quote—‘Some Beach.’”
But the photograph that struck me the most was one of my mom—at what is clearly a tourist attraction—in front of some faux covered wagons identified as “Missouri” and “New York.” Her head is down, looking forlornly at the ground. On the back of the photograph my father had written sparsely: “After the first fight.”
It would not be their last.
If my parents did not exactly form a Dharmic union, well, Frank and Ava were something else again.
Gardner was a dark, sultry beauty, a seductive screen siren who played by her own rules during an era when women seldom called the shots. Born to poor sharecropper parents, she had a pronounced backwoods Carolina drawl that she needed to lose for the silver screen, but she never abandoned her regional cadences, her Southern sense of chivalry. When she was 19, she was discovered through a photograph of her taken by her brother-in-law, and she burned a path straight to Hollywood.
Gardner’s sister once called Ava “Sinatra in drag,” a “man eater” who left behind a string of broken hearts in her wake. She had been married to the actor Mickey Rooney and the bandleader Artie Shaw (both ill-fated and short-lived), and had well-publicized affairs with the tycoon Howard Hughes and Ernest Hemingway.
Sinatra, married and with three young children at the time they met, became obsessed with the green-eyed, raven-haired beauty. When reports surfaced that she was having an affair on the set in Spain with the handsome bullfighter Mario Cabré, Sinatra stormed across the Atlantic to stake his claim. She had turned Sinatra into a pretzel and later turned Cabré into one as well. (He wrote a book of love poems for her, hoping to win her back.)
Anyone close to Sinatra during the 1950s would identify Gardner as “the love of his life,” but it’s a fine line between love and obsession. Maybe not so fine. On one occasion, he bluffed a suicide attempt by unloading a revolver into a bed mattress.
The very same day my parents arrived in “The Biggest Little City in the World” for their marriage—Aug. 18, 1951—Gardner also arrived in Reno to be with Frank. It was said that he was there for a $25,000 payday (and there’s no doubt he needed the money), but the overriding purpose of his sojourn was to establish a six-week residency in Nevada so that he could obtain a divorce from his wife, Nancy. As a result, Frank and Ava’s high-desert rendezvous was international news, with headlines and their images splashed everywhere.
It goes against our perception of him as Chairman of the Board, but the fact is that Sinatra’s career was on the skids at the time. He was on the verge of losing his record contract with Columbia (unbelievably, he would go without one for two years), his TV show had been cancelled, his agency dumped him. His alleged Mafia ties and left-wing politics (he was accused of being a Communist sympathizer), not to mention his highly publicized extramarital affair with Gardner, had made him persona non grata with the Wonder Bread American media.
Indeed, Gardner would later boast that it was she who kept the boat afloat during those years, and there’s some truth to that. She was the ascendant star—her picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine the following week, identifying her as Hollywood’s new “It” girl.
Behind the scenes, however, the mood was much darker. The week of my parents’ honeymoon—not long after she complimented my mother on her dress—Gardner spilled the dirty details to Sinatra about her love affair with Cabré in Spain. It didn’t go over well with her husband-to-be. Frankie went into a rage and staged another suicide attempt, only this time he swallowed the pills. The doctors got called in to pump out his stomach; his press agent got brought in to clean up the mess. But the news leaked.
Frank and Ava split Tahoe and made their way to the East Coast and eventually got married in Philadelphia.
Long after their tumultuous relationship had ended, an interviewer asked Gardner why she had put up with Sinatra for so long. “It was a sort of madness, honey,” she intoned in her seductive southern drawl. “We were fighting all the time. Fighting and boozing. But he was good in the feathers. You don’t pay much attention to what other people tell you when a guy’s good in the feathers.”
Gardner was not the first person to confuse lust for love. But the feathers only took them so far. Frank and Ava split a few years later, both engulfed in extramarital affairs that scorched the newspapers and scandal sheets. They divorced in 1956.
Frank and Lindy did not. They stuck it out.
I had an older brother, born in 1953, who died shortly after his birth, surely bringing yet another cloud of grief to my parents’ young marriage. I was born in ’55, and my sister in ’57. Two decades later, my old man split, a la Sinatra, for a much younger woman, and it was to get uglier before the seas settled a bit and life moved on.
By the time my mother and I arrived at Bally’s in April of 1988, Frankie Boy had gone through a series of career transformations, abandoning his leftist politics for the political and cultural tenets of Reaganism (in part, perhaps, because of perceived betrayals by the Kennedys), and he had become an icon of the conservative right.
As a result, I didn’t appear to be a good fit that night in Reno, with my long hair and Levi’s, but I was committed to making the most of the evening for my mother; no beefs, no trouble. Truth be told, I dug the scene, the high rollers Sinatra brought in, the would-be gangsters and wannabe starlets who were constantly drawn to his flame.
Plus, I dug his music, his act, his passionate musical interpretations.
I had arranged for some press credentials through the San Francisco Chronicle for the show at Bally’s, just in case, and when I flashed them, much to my surprise, the maitre de escorted my mother and me front row, center stage. Dead center. I tipped him a twenty. They were thousand-dollar seats. My mom was in heaven. So was I.
You got two cocktails per seat for the show, which meant I got four, since my mother didn’t drink, which translated into eight, since they allowed you to order doubles. I drank Jack Daniels “over,” in honor of Frankie, and later added coffee to the mix, which had me floating by the time the show started, writing down notes, keeping an eye on my mom. She was making chit-chat with the people around her, as she always did, finishing her remarks with her signature “Hey, hey!” She told many people the story about Ava and her dress.
In her early 70s at the time, my mom was still a striking woman. Frankie cast his eye on her for much of the show, and there were times when Sinatra was singing directly into her eyes. At one point he reached down and grabbed her hand. She was glowing. She rocked her head lightly to every song, sinking into the moment. She may have been six months older than Ol’ Blue Eyes, but she looked decades younger.
The 40-piece band, conducted by Sinatra’s son, Frankie Jr., was swinging. Sinatra sang amazing forceful renditions of “Mack the Knife,” “New York, New York,” and Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life.” His signature anthem “My Way,” moved me to tears. But the song that knocked me out was a dramatic version of “One for My Baby”—Sinatra sitting on a bar stool in front of the piano with a cigarette and a sour-mash whiskey in hand. That performance had Ava written all over it.
Sinatra’s once velvet baritone and legato phrasing were long gone, but I much preferred the seasoned, edgier, life-hardened voice of his later years. It was a triumphant evening. A woman nearby kept yelling out loudly, “That man can wear a suit! Boy, can that guy wear a suit!” Then she turned to me and said, “Kid, you’d look good in one, too.” I shook my head negatively. We all laughed. Frankie, too. At least up in the front rows, it was jovial and intimate. The party was on. Sinatra was playing to the crowd. His crowd. Thirty-seven years later, it was Frank and Lindy and me.
Frank mentioned Gardner that night as well. There had been recent reports in the papers and scandal rags that Sinatra had been paying her medical bills since she had suffered a stroke two years earlier. “Join me,” he said, “in sending your best wishes to Ava Gardner … I know she’d appreciate it.” There was a reverent round of applause. Gardner was part of the Sinatra canon.
My mother reached over and kissed me. “Thank you, darling,” she said. “I had a wonderful time.” Whatever ghosts we were chasing had smiled on us.
I had been meaning to write this story for many years, even decades, and finally, this past December, had scheduled a publication date for some time around Valentine’s Day. I began gathering my notes and photographs, newspaper clippings, anticipating that my mother, then seven months into her 99th year, still quite healthy and vibrant, would be alive when it was published.
Life, however, rarely goes as planned. A few days after Christmas, she took ill, and she died ever so peacefully in her sleep, her last words to me being “I love you.”
Last week, as I was going through some drawers, I came across a stash of letters that I had salvaged from the trash can when my father had left our family in the early 1970s. They were love letters, more than 50 of them, written by my mother to him, mostly in 1949 after they had first met, but they carried on intermittently into 1951, a few months before they married.
I had my guard up while reading them, but there was nothing, really, that I couldn’t handle. What I noticed was that my mother, as I noted, 10 years my dad’s senior, took on something of a motherly tone. As with everything my mom did, the letters were decidedly upbeat and positive, though into deep waters they did not tread. While she avoided those depths, I was to discover later in life that she was more than capable of traversing them. Even the rapid deaths they absorbed together during the period—three parents and a sibling—were skimmed over quickly. On more than one occasion my mother urged my father to “keep your chin up, darling.”
The letters clearly reveal that my mother had fallen in love with my father soon after they had met in the summer of 1949. Sometimes she wrote him three or four times a week. She longed to be with him. She pleaded with him to write, to call, to visit. She signed them all, with little variation, “Well, Frank, must close and till then—I miss you so much—Love, Lindy.”
I recall the Delmore Schwartz short story as I read them, and I sometimes break down as I stumble over a phrase or an expression. But I don’t have the urge to scream out at my mother, to admonish her, “Don’t you know what you are doing?” Lindy knew what she was doing. She was pursuing the arc of love as best she knew how. She just didn’t know how quickly it would all end. Lindy, like the rest of us, had placed her bet on the roulette wheel of life.
The letters are painful at times, but also joyful and fun and, for the most part, my mother’s overriding optimism is present on nearly every page. I’m glad I deterred my old man’s intentions with the letters and contributed them to the archeology of love. Some day I’ll give them to one of her grandchildren.
Lindy may not have been lucky in romance, but at the end of her life she was surrounded by those that loved her—grandchildren, family and friends.
At her memorial event, in early January at Pacific Gardens Chapel, my daughter Tess sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to conclude the service. It’s not a song that Sinatra ever sang or recorded, but perhaps he should have. Tess accompanied herself brilliantly on a grand piano and her voice and music filled the chapel.
Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you
It’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not someone who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah …
My mom loved Tess’ version of the song, always joining in the choruses with spirited vocals of “Hallelujah.” At the service, everyone joined in. It was a perfect denouement to the afternoon.
I’ve thought about it a lot since that day: Sinatra, Gardner and my old man may have spent their lives shooting others in love, but the draw of my mother’s bow was longer, steadier, truer to its mark, than theirs. Lindy gleaned different lessons from love, and, in the end, levied different expectations and accepted different rewards. She never figured it for a duel.