On the night of December 22, 1938, two constables from Hackensack, New Jersey, headed for the Rustic Cabin in Englewood Cliffs to arrest Frank Sinatra.
Armed with a warrant charging adultery, the two officers walked into the dim little roadhouse looking for the skinny singer who waited tables and sang with Harold Arden's band over the radio line to WNEW in New York.
They waited until Frank finished his midnight broadcast and then sent word that they wanted to give him a Christmas present from one of his admirers. Falling for the ruse, Sinatra walked over to their table, where the criminal court officers arrested him and took him off to the courthouse. After posting five hundred dollars bail, he was released on his own recognizance.
The next day a Hoboken newspaper carried a story headlined: songbird held in morals charge, but no one in Hoboken paid much attention. They were accustomed to seeing the Sinatra name in print for getting into trouble with the law. Frank's uncle Dominick, a boxer known as Champ Sieger, had been charged with malicious mischief; his uncle Gus had been arrested several times for running numbers; his other uncle, Babe, had been charged with participating in a murder and had been sent to prison. His father, Marty, was once charged with receiving stolen goods, and his mother, Dolly, was regularly in and out of courthouses for performing illegal abortions. And Frank himself had been arrested just a month before on a seduction charge.
Frank's relationship with the woman who pressed criminal charges against him had begun earlier that year, when Antoinette Della Penta Francke, a pretty twenty-five-year-old who had long been separated from her husband, went to the Rustic Cabin.
"He got on the platform to sing and I turned to face him," she said. "I was sucking a lemon from my Scotch, and he got mad at me. He came to the table afterwards and said, 'Look, young lady. Do you know you almost ruined my song? You suck a lemon and you make me go dry."
" 'I'm going to give you a lemon in your sour face,' I joked to him. He asked me to dance and then he said, 'Can I take you out next week?' He was playing two against the middle with me and Nancy Barbato, but I didn't know it for a long time. We went together quite a few months, but then, because of his mother, he dropped me. He made me die of humiliation over something. To this day, I think about it."
Toni Francke was from Lodi, New Jersey, an Italian blue-collar town of tiny clapboard houses, several of which had plaster shrines to the Blessed Virgin Mary on their front porches. Dolly Sinatra, who prized her uptown location in Hoboken, was enraged that her son had reached into such a poor area for a girlfriend.
"After dating Frank awhile," Toni said, "I learned how to drive, and sometimes I'd pick him up in my car. Dolly would come out and holler at me, 'Who are you waiting for?'
" 'I'm waiting for Frank,' I'd say.
" 'You are after his money and you are nothing but cheap trash from Lodi,' she'd say.
"Then Frank would come down. He'd feel real embarrassed. He'd put his head down and get in the car, but Dolly would start screaming at him. He used to cry in my car because she didn't want him to be a singer. She said he was a bum. 'Go to college. Go to college,' she'd yell. 'You would not go to school.' 'You want to sing.' 'You bring home bad girlfriends.' She kept it up all the time, always nagging and screaming at him.
"I asked him how he could stand all that hollering. Frank said that she yelled at him all the time. Even when he went for a walk with his dad, she'd scream out the door. 'Where youse going? Don't start making him drink beer like you do, do you hear me?' Frank loved his father then. He really did. He used to say to me, 'I'd give Ma anything if she'd just leave my old man alone.'
"I said to him, 'Frank, why don't you open your mouth to your mother?'
" 'I don't like to say anything,' he said. 'She's my mother.'
"He loved her but he didn't, if you know what I mean."
Despite his mother's strenuous objections, Frank kept going to Lodi. After a few months of steady dating, Toni and her parents invited the Sinatras to dinner.
"Frank told me that Dolly yelled, 'What do you mean I have to go down there?' You see, she felt she was better than us."
Dolly finally relented and went with her husband and her son to the Della Penta home. Frank was looking forward to introducing his father to Toni, but he was worried about his mother kicking up a scene. He didn't have long to wait.
Tension pulsated on both sides of the front door when the Sinatras arrived and rang the bell. Mr. Della Penta answered, and Dolly walked in first, followed by Marty and Frank. Toni stepped forward and said hello. "You look so nice," she said. "You have such a nice dress on." As Dolly was looking around the house, Toni took their coats and hung them up. Here's how she recalls the occasion:
Frank went into the living room, sat down, and asked Toni to sit beside him. His parents sat down as well. Mrs. Della Penta said she was going into the kitchen to check on dinner. Frank popped up to help her.
"That's more than he does for me," said Dolly. "I'm sorry I had a boy. I should have had a girl."
"You get what God gives you," said Toni's father.
"How many children do you have anyway, Mr. Della Penta?"
He said that he had two daughters and one son, which seemed excessive to Dolly. "My, that's a big family, isn't it," she said.
"Big?" said Toni. "It's a pleasure. At least you are never alone."
"If God wanted me to have more kids, I would've had them," Dolly said.
Frank walked into the room. "Did you say God, Ma? I haven't seen you go to church in quite a while."
They had barely sat down to dinner when Dolly turned to Mr. Della Penta and said, "Don't you think these kids are kind of young to be going around together?"
Frank looked at him and said, "I care for your daughter."
"It's only puppy play," said Dolly.
"Mom, I'm a twenty-two-year-old man," said Frank. "Besides, you got married young."
Dolly persisted. "I don't want these kids to get married. Frankie has to go to school first."
"I quit school, and you know it," said Frank.
"You what?" said Toni, who thought Frank was a high-school graduate. "When did you quit?"
"Now you know," said Frank. "You don't have to read it in the papers with Ma around, do you?"
"I don't want Toni to go with him," said Dolly. "They're too young. She'll keep Frankie from being a big singer. I want him to be a star."
Mr. Della Penta looked at Marty, who had not said a word. "Are you against this too?"
Turning to Dolly, Marty said, "I've had it. She's a fine girl. Just because she has Italian grandparents, does that mean she is so bad? Your parents did not like the idea of me, but you did it anyway, so why can't Frankie do what he wants?"
"Shut your goddamned mouth," said Dolly.
"Yeah, if someone's not Irish, you don't want me to have anything to do with them," said Frank.
Rose Della Penta left the room, and Toni's brother turned to Dolly. "Your son came after my sister," he said. "She didn't go after Frank."
"I don't care," said Dolly. "I don't want them going around together anymore."
Mr. Della Penta went into the kitchen to join his wife. Frank turned to his mother. "You should not have come. You're making Mr. and Mrs. Della Penta feel bad," he said.
Toni got up from the table to serve dessert. "Would you care for some fruit?"
"Oh, no," said Dolly. "I'm on a diet." Then she asked to go to the bathroom. Toni showed her where it was, saying, "Watch yourself coming down the steps."
"Oh, I can watch myself, don't you ever worry about that, young lady," said Dolly.
The dinner ended with Frank's telling his parents to go home without him because Toni would drive him back later.
"You have to get your rest, Frankie," said his mother. "You can't stay out late."
"Don't worry, Ma. I'll be home later."
"I don't like that. What time will you be back? I worry. I don't sleep right."
Marty looked at her and said, "You do okay. I'm the one who gets up at night."
Dolly never called to thank the Della Pentas for the macaroni dinner, nor did she ever invite them to Hoboken to have dinner at her house on Garden Street.
Frank told Toni not to take his mother's insults personally. "It's not just you," he said. "It's any girl I go with. No matter who the girl is, my mother always has something to say."
In the summer of 1938, Frank asked Toni to go steady and gave her a small diamond ring. A few days later, she said, he proposed in his car, saying, "I got to make more money, but I'm going to marry you, Toni."
He teased her because she wouldn't go to bed with him, saying that other girls treated their boyfriends better than she treated him.
"I'm not that type," Toni recalls.
"What have you got to lose?"
"What do you mean? If you marry me, okay, but otherwise you can't touch me until you marry me."
"Why, you made of gold or something?"
After a few nights of such sparring, Toni softened, convinced she would eventually get a divorce and marry Frank. She said she had known him a long time and felt good about him.
"Frank didn't seem like he had been to bed with anyone before," she said later. "He was kind of shy. He wasn't all that good because he was so thin. But he was very gentle with me. He did not grab me the first night. He could have but he didn't. We had gone to a big hotel outside of town with a bunch of other couples. We never slept together at my house. We always went to hotels, and Frank registered us as Mr. and Mrs. Sinatra. He sang to me in bed."
Within six weeks, Toni was pregnant. When she broke the news to Frank, he did not say anything for the longest time. Then he said, "Well, I'll have to marry you."
"Don't do me no favors, Frank."
She said that there were no fights or arguments over her pregnancy and th...