The Battle For ... Frank Inc. Love And Marriage Sinatra's Wife And Kids Battle Over Frank Inc. While His Health Slips Editor's Note: The Following Article Appeared In Monday's Wall Street Journal.

Posted: October 01, 1997

So who will be the next Chairman of the Board?

At age 81, Frank Sinatra, Old Blue Eyes, isn't getting any younger. And with each slip into infirmity - he was hospitalized twice with heart troubles during the past year - his heirs become further enmeshed in a behind-the-scenes battle over his financial holdings, estimated to be worth at least $200 million.

Precisely all of what constitutes Sinatra Inc., as it could be called, is unclear. But the singer's portfolio is perched on a mint of recording royalties, with sidelines in Beverly Hills real estate, a beer wholesaler, music-publishing companies and licensing deals. You name it, the Sinatra name is on it. Credit cards. Champagne. Ties. Pasta sauce.

But with all the family bickering, the Sinatra name no longer means harmony. Family members have clashed repeatedly over arguably tacky merchandise, such as a ``singing'' Franklin Mint souvenir plate with Sinatra on vocals via computer chip. Sinatra cigars are being readied, angering a few nonsmoking relatives. While some urge restraint, others have high hopes of licensing the Sinatra name to a long line of prospects, from restaurateurs to hat makers.

It rankles some that the Sinatra musical legacy is seemingly being cheapened and by the singer's own family, no less. Gripes George Schlatter, a Hollywood producer and Sinatra confidant, ``He isn't about ashtrays, pasta sauces, belt buckles and ties.''

The licensing barrage has largely been the doing of Tina Sinatra, the singer's 49-year-old daughter. Tina, who has long claimed creative control over all Sinatra products, earlier this month took over as chief executive of Sheffield Enterprises Inc., the entity formed by Sinatra to license his name and likeness. She succeeded Nathan ``Sonny'' Golden, her father's longtime accountant and business manager. (Golden didn't respond to calls for comment.)

Just where do the Sinatra factions divide?

In the other corner: the stepmother, Barbara Sinatra, who is the singer's fourth wife, and her son, Robert Marx, 46, an entertainment-industry attorney who recently joined the Sheffield board. Years ago, according to a Sinatra family member, Sinatra had such affection for Robert that he wanted to adopt him, but relented amid bitter opposition from the Sinatra children.

Barbara, 70, has no official role in the business, though she is credited with pushing Sinatra to revive his career after their 1976 wedding. A former model and ex-wife of the late comedian Zeppo Marx, she stands to gain a fortune from a contract her husband signed with Capitol Records in 1993. Thanks to an unusually high royalty agreement of around 20 percent and the success of Sinatra's two recent Duets albums, which sold more than 3.7 million copies in the U.S. alone - the singer and his wife have enjoyed a steady flow of millions.

Mrs. Sinatra has also gotten more involved in managing reissues of early Sinatra songs for which the children don't hold sole rights. Barbara decided it needed to get locked up so the various family members couldn't get their hands on it, says Steve Gates, an executive with RCA Victor, which holds Sinatra's recordings from when he was a singer in the Tommy Dorsey band.

Beyond the valuable music catalogs, there are Sinatra's extensive business and real-estate interests, as well as a large art collection including his own paintings.

How will it all be parceled out? That's a mystery. His attorney, Harvey Silbert, drew up the will and it was rewritten within the past five years. ``Only Frank and I know its contents,'' he says. Sinatra's wife and children aren't privy to the details, he adds.

Housebound in his palatial Beverly Hills estate - decorated in pale desert colors, with a baby grand piano and indoor sculptures - the frail but ever-opinionated Sinatra declined requests to be interviewed. So did his wife. In a faxed statement, Barbara wrote that she endorses her husband's policy of never speaking publicly about personal family matters or financial arrangements.

Those in the Sinatra brood who will talk insist the divisions between them, staples of the tabloids, are trumpeted louder-than- life because of their patriarch's celebrity. The adult children say they have good relationships with their stepmother, though they acknowledge the occasional sour note.

Asked about tension between Barbara and stepdaughter Tina, Robert Finkelstein, the longtime attorney for Sinatra's children, says, ``There are miscues from time to time and emotions from time to time, but they have a warm, loving relationship . . . That's not to say there aren't differences of opinion.''

ALL OR NOTHING AT ALL For her part, Tina says she sees herself as a guardian of the Sinatra image, fending off anyone looking to loot her father's fame. At her behest, Finkelstein hounded one small-time Sinatra impersonator until he forked over a licensing fee to the family. She also took matters into her own hands when she noticed that Fox Television had failed to credit her father in the closing titles of ``Married . . . With Children,'' which featured his 1955 song ``Love and Marriage'' as the opening theme. (His name went into the credits.)

``We have to fight for the very fiber of who we are,'' Tina says. ``I don't want to lose ground when we lose the principal.''

She doesn't hesitate to play the heavy. Asked a series of questions by the Wall Street Journal, she becomes annoyed and says, should any quotes be misconstrued, ``I'll come after you with a knife.''

Signature Sinatra. No fan of the press himself, Sinatra has shunned reporters his whole life, and was even arrested for slugging a columnist in Ciro's nightclub in West Hollywood in 1947. (He settled the day he was to go on trial, paying Lee Mortimer $9,000 and ordered by the court to give a public apology.)

`A FEMALE FRANK' ``Tina's tough,'' says Mickey Paxton, group creative director of WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson, the advertising agency that enlisted a claymation Frank Sinatra in a TV commercial for Lipton tea. It was Tina who approved scripts and quibbled over folds in the puppet's face to ensure her father didn't appear as a ``grumpy, negative guy,'' Paxton says. ``It was like dealing with a female Frank. She is brutally honest.''

There has been much discord over the molding of Sinatra's image, in clay or otherwise. One 1995 project, commemorative neckties, prompted bickering over just which Sinatra photos would appear on the little tags that hang from the ties on store racks. Barbara approved a current photo of her smiling, heavily airbrushed husband in a manicured silver toupee.

``My hair was on fire,'' recalls Tina, fuming that creative control over such decisions is hers. We wanted to go with the middle-aged Frank. Siding with her was tie maker Stonehenge Ltd., New York, which had already marketed a successful line of ties featuring the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia. The photo eventually used was one of a swaggering 1960s Sinatra, pork-pie hat tilted, tie raffishly undone. ``Everyone had a different opinion,'' says Irwin Sternberg, Stonehenge president. ``It was very frustrating.''

Lackluster sales of the ties prompted finger-pointing. Tina says the photo mix-up begun by her stepmother knotted up the whole deal. But Barbara's son, Robert Marx, fires back, ``The ties' success or failure was a result of the ties themselves; my mother had nothing to do with that.''

In the early days, Francis Albert Sinatra shaped his image solo. The baritone balladeer from Hoboken, N.J., who never learned to read music burst upon the nation as a pioneering multimedia persona. When radio was the rage in the 1930s and '40s, he rode the airwaves with the Tommy Dorsey Band. In the 1950s, he hosted his own TV shows. In 1960, he was the first star to found his own record label, Reprise. On the big screen, his career reached a peak with his 1953 Oscar-winning performance in ``From Here to Eternity,'' followed by the chummy Rat Pack films and 1984's ``Cannonball Run II.''

In the end, what endures is the music. Frank Sinatra recorded more top-40 albums than any artist: 51, three more than Elvis Presley. During his vinyl dyn- asty, he compiled more top-10 albums than the Beatles. And he holds an unbeaten record of longevity on Billboard's charts, where some Sinatra song was a fixture every week from 1955 to 1995.

The rights to the rich Reprise Records catalog are held by Bristol Productions L.P., which Sinatra formed in the mid-1950s to hold his budding film interests. (He chose British-style names for his companies, like Bristol and Sheffield, which sounded classy to him.) As part of his estate planning, he later assigned control of Bristol to his children.

His other businesses are a hodgepodge. In the 1960s, he bought into Somerset Distributors Inc., a wholesale beer distributor in Long Beach, Calif., with estimated annual sales of more than S30 million. He and his former attorney and longtime business partner, Milton A. Mickey Rudin, are major shareholders, and the Sinatra children also hold shares. Sinatra is also chief executive of two music publishing companies, Sergeant Music Co. and Saloon Songs Inc., which own the rights to songs by a variety of artists. His real-estate holdings include an interest in a high-rent Beverly Hills, Calif., office building, his nearby estate and a house in Malibu. Mr. and Mrs. Sinatra sold their sprawling Rancho Mirage home near Palm Springs in 1995, and an auction of its contents pulled in more than $52 million.

THE STUFF OF TABLOIDS personal life was always turbulent and drew the attention of a pre-tabloid public. His first marriage, in 1939, to his teen sweetheart Nancy Barbato lasted 11 years. Though divorced, they remained close; she currently lives near him. He then had two quick, but headline-grabbing marriages, to film siren Ava Gardner and actress Mia Farrow. In 1963, Frank Jr. was kidnapped. But domestic problems really began to bubble when his three children from his first marriage reached adulthood, and when Barbara Marx walked into his life.

For the Sinatras, 1995 wasn't a very good year. One interview, in the New York Daily News, quoted Nancy as saying her stepmother calls the shots. It's like having a father who's being held hostage. Finkelstein, the Sinatra children's lawyer, says Nancy doesn't deny, but also doesn't remember, saying that. Later, a national tabloid carried a major story suggesting that Barbara was barring the children from seeing their father without appointments.

``I thought it was a pretty cheap shot,'' says Robert Marx.

The children were also furious when Capitol released ``Live in Concert,'' a collection of performances recorded since 1987 and commemorating Sinatra's 80th birthday. The album, which sold more than 300,000 copies, was loaded with re-recorded Sinatra standards, such as ``My Way,'' ``New York, New York'' and ``My Heart Stood Still'' - all songs for which the children hold rights to the originals. Sinatra dedicated the album to Barbara, ``the love of my life.''

His children began discussing with Finkelstein taking legal action against their father and Capitol. Tina confirms the attorney was called in, though neither will describe the legal steps taken.

``It was in our best interest to then, as always, protect that catalog,'' Tina says. ``Yes, it put Dad on notice; he was the artist who signed the agreements.'' Indeed, her father had struck an agreement years before promising he wouldn't re-record songs of a period whose royalties now benefited his children.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY Tina adds that the legal wrangle over the album came during a time exacerbated by the scheduling of a televised birthday tribute planned in late 1995 for her father's 80th birthday. The show, organized by Barbara and George Schlatter, the producer, was to benefit the Barbara Sinatra Children's Center at Eisenhower Medical Center in Palm Springs and an AIDS charity. But Tina maintains her father didn't want to do the show. ``There was a lot of angst surrounding the issue of the TV show. Dad didn't want it. He went along with it, but he didn't enjoy it,'' she says. Tina and her siblings only made cameos.

Schlatter says accuracy sometimes eludes Sinatra's daughters. ``The last thing Frank Sinatra didn't OK in advance was his birth,'' he says.

Another reissue battle surfaced last year as Barbara and the Sinatra children wrangled over the rights to ``Live in Australia: Frank Sinatra with the Red Norvo Quintet,'' according to Capitol Records executives. Originally recorded in 1959, the album had been available only in bootleg form, until a Sinatra archivist uncovered an authorized version. Since the Red Norvo songs were recorded during a period that belongs to the children, but the recording was discovered at a time when Barbara is the beneficiary of the royalties under the current contract with Capitol, both sides claimed ownership. In the end, the children won.

Potshots also flew over a limited-edition bottle of Frank Sinatra champagne produced by F. Korbel Bros. Inc. of Sonoma County, Calif., with some sales benefiting the Children's Center. Tina says she wasn't happy with the deal, even though the Sheffield board approved it. The bottles were plastered with designs adapted from Sinatra's own paintings. ``Why not put them on something that would be a higher caliber product?'' Tina says. She adds that she wouldn't touch Korbel herself, noting that Barbara likes it. (Mrs. Sinatra's son says his mother actually prefers the pricier Taittinger.)

Things have gotten so rancorous in recent years that at times the two sides barely acknowledge one another. Tina and Nancy were no-shows at the renewal of their father's and Barbara's wedding vows on their 20th anniversary last year. This year, Nancy launched an Internet Web site (sinatrafamily.com); there are prominent sections for each family member, even Frank's first wife, but none for Barbara.

Occasionally, the Sinatras do try to get along. When Nancy appeared in a photo layout in Playboy in 1995 at age 54, Robert Marx showed up at the New York press party for the unveiling. And in April, when Congress voted to award Sinatra a Congressional Gold Medal, the daughters and other family members attended a celebratory dinner at the Sinatras' Beverly Hills home.

But tensions have already started to rise, people close to the family say, over who will get to be by Sinatra's side when he receives the Gold Medal later this year.

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