A Friend to the End
(As a tribute to the legendary Don Hewitt, the originator of "60 Minutes" and long-time CBS News producer/director, Tribune Media Services has decided to re-release a column I wrote 11 years ago. My former boss and a friend for more than 60 years, Hewitt, fighting to the end, passed away Wednesday, Aug. 19.)
Frank Sinatra was my close friend -- for two days in 1965. CBS News was doing an hour profile of him. Walter Cronkite was the correspondent, Don Hewitt was the producer and I was the writer. The three of us flew to Palm Springs, met the camera crew and drove to Frank's house.
Setting up a room for a two-camera interview makes a mess of a place. Furniture must be moved, rugs taken up and miles of wires and cables strung. Sinatra's two-bedroom house was extraordinarily pleasant but not as big we had expected. We were given complete freedom by George Jacobs, who was Sinatra's cook, butler and housekeeper.
Jacobs worshipped Sinatra but said he was tough. He told of the time they were flying to New York in Sinatra's jet and Sinatra opened his suitcase to put on a clean shirt before landing. He was dissatisfied with the way it had been packed and, pointing his thumb at Jacobs, he told the plane attendant, "Open that door and throw him out."
Sinatra was due in for the interview the next day. He was known to be very finicky about his house, so as we were leaving, we pinned a note to his front door. It read: "Frank: If you're so neat, how come your house is such a mess?"
The next day, he asked us to have lunch with him. Jacobs prepared a good chicken salad and we had a lot of fun. I took a piece of the crusty bread from a basket, tasted it and asked, "Where did you get the Parisi bread?" My question bonded our new friendship. Sinatra looked at me with an expression that was half surprise and half pleasure. "How did you know it was Parisi?" he asked.
In New York City, the upper part of Mott Street is known as "Little Italy." There are several "social" clubs there, the traditional locale for Mafia meetings. Joe Parisi's bakery, with a brick oven in the basement, was one. I had often gone there to buy a few loaves because I thought it was the best bread I'd ever tasted.
"I love it," Frank said. "I have four loaves shipped out three times a week."
Cronkite did his usual good job with the interview, but when the cameraman stopped to load a new roll of film, Hewitt went over to Cronkite and whispered, "Ask him about the Mafia."
With the camera rolling again, Cronkite politely asked about the rumors of Mafia connections and his friendship with "the mob." End of interview. Sinatra stood up and strode toward his bedroom, screaming at Hewitt to follow him.
Whatever Hewitt said consoled Sinatra, and he returned. With the cameras rolling, Cronkite repeated the question. This time Sinatra had a politician's answer. He said that in his business, he met a lot of people. He also said that "they," meaning the Mafia, owned some of the nightclubs he sang in, so inevitably he met them.
Several weeks later in New York, Sinatra invited us for dinner at Jilly Rizzo's, a favorite Italian restaurant of his. Jilly's was not a great restaurant, but Sinatra was loyal to Joe Parisi and he was loyal to Jilly, who had fallen on hard times. Sinatra was always good to friends in trouble. Toward the back of Jilly's was a seedy Naugahyde banquette. No one sat there but Sinatra. He came there just three or four times a year, but when he came, his seat was there for him. Sinatra's friends were as loyal to him as he was to them.
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