Valet of the Dolls

Andrew O’Hagan

There was only one other person in the life of Samuel Johnson who stood a chance of writing a biography as entertaining as Boswell’s. Francis Barber was overqualified by modern standards, and too loyal for the job in any era, but for more than thirty years he was Johnson’s (black) manservant. There in the small hours – peeling oranges, brewing tea, mending stockings, lifting papers – Barber was considered to be all the disciples other than Judas, though one now wonders, naturally, what the servant could have offered the great moralist in the way of a horrific posthumous disservice.

The words ‘great moralist’ are unlikely to appear again in this essay, seeing as we’re dealing with Frank Sinatra, a man who managed, without much effort, to make the majority of his rowdy compatriots look like barefoot regulars in Bernadette’s grotto at Lourdes. It’s not that we could really have expected a straightforward portrait of Frank Sinatra with votive candles: even those who never worked for the crooner, Kitty Kelly among them, have had no trouble finding instant and compelling evidence to prove he was a complete nightmare. Yet this book by George Jacobs, who was Sinatra’s valet for 15 years, might be understood to be wired in a whole new way: it is perhaps the ultimate diatribe by the disgruntled ex-staffer; a new high point (or low point) in a super-readable genre that should surely be given its own section in bookshops.

‘I’m looking for a book which proves that the underpaid and the down-trodden always get their revenge in the end?’

‘Have you tried the Cookery section?’

‘No, something more violent.’

‘What about the Forward Poetry Prize selection? Australian Fiction, maybe?’

‘No. Something unforgiving. Something crazed. Nearly evil . . .’

‘I know. You want a new section we’ve just invented. It’s full of books written by people who used to work for the famous.’

‘Oh? What’s it called?’

‘We keep them in the basement. Just ask for the section called it’s always the quiet one.’

The genre got off to a cracking start a long time ago with Marion Crawford’s book about the Little Princesses. That really set the standard: ‘Crawfie’, the former governess, got excommunicated, everybody (except the reader) felt betrayed, and the world of the British royals suddenly seemed quite comic. Dozens of volumes followed suit, but some, like Crawfie’s, have that extra sparkle, usually because the world being described is so closed or because the people being ratted on are so especially absurd. Lena Pepitone’s Marilyn Monroe Confidential was irreproachable for the sheer relentlessness of its reproach. Monroe, her one-time maid writes, took the peroxide bottle to her pubic hair and never washed her sheets; meanwhile, Arthur Miller hid away in his study pretending to write a play in order to avoid his wife’s demands for arguments, babies and pizza.

Rough stuff, but not that rough when compared to some of the more recent semi-penitents who rush to take up the pen as soon as they lay down the Hoover. Who can forget Rosemary Mahoney, who spent a summer scrubbing Lillian Hellman’s floors in Martha’s Vineyard? On taking the job, she thought of Hellman as a brilliant writer, a woman ‘brave and strong and full of noble ideas’, but after a few twists of Hellman’s fiendish mouth (smeared in lipstick ‘the colour of dried blood’), we are all set for the main business of Mahoney’s memorable squeal-fest, A Likely Story, which set a new standard of malice for books by vengeful factotums everywhere. Hellman, we hear, would go into the worst rage imaginable when Mahoney forgot to put her eyedrops on ice.[*]

It’s always the small detail that breaks your heart. Elvis Presley, who couldn’t ask somebody to pass him the salt without their one day writing a memoir about it, is fixed in our minds as a tiny-dick weirdo with double mirrors at Graceland and a penchant for deep-fried peanut butter sandwiches at midnight, thanks, mainly, to the literary efforts of the flunkies and junkies who surfed for years near the top of his payroll. Such ventures have now gathered their features into a regular form – bodyguards do it, chauffeurs do it, even educated fleas do it – but the most compelling are by the very quiet ones, the ones who must have seemed to have extraordinary reserves of faithfulness in them – running baths, pouring drinks, never interrupting – but who lived with hate behind their eyes all the while, looking forward to their own hour on the stage, no longer fireable, no longer wage-dependent, finding deeper and still deeper reserves of truth-telling brio as they plunge forward to exact the spear-carrier’s perfect revenge. Despoiling the spoiled, shutting up the shut-uppers: welcome to the world’s fiercest form of Last Wordism.

In Mr S.: The Last Word on Frank Sinatra, George Jacobs manages to make all the vengeance sound like one of the higher duties of friendship:

I realised that Frank and I had a lot in common, a divorce and three kids . . . With any other boss, I might have felt it was presumptuous to compare my situation with his. But something about Mr S. was so vulnerable, so real, at least at that stage of his life, that it wasn’t long before I let him know how much my own situation allowed me to relate to his. I struck a chord in him that made him open up about the deep frustrations he was feeling, loving his family, loving Ava Gardner and loving his career all at the same time – none of them were giving him an easy time of it. We’d sit and play cards late into the night, and he’d drink ‘Jack’ and obsess about his career.

Thankfully, Jacobs’s instincts as a friend and a common soul turn out to be less sharp than his flick-knife, which glints a few inches in front of his can-do smile from fairly early in the book. First, we get to know about The Firing, which is always very important on these occasions, and is invariably presented in the ‘more in sorrow’ tone that these books adopt so artfully. Jacobs, it emerges, was frozen out for dancing suggestively in a Hollywood nightclub with Mia Farrow. Fair cop, you might think. Alas, Jacobs would have you consider it a miscarriage of justice requiring the services of Atticus Finch, and though the sacking is never offered as a reason for Jacobs’s resentment, it is regularly framed as the ultimate piece of Sinatra craziness, Sinatra selfishness, Sinatra egomania, Sinatra evil.

So Jacobs gets on with the new job, making his old boss, and everyone around him, sound truly bonkers and destined for the braziers of hell. Yet there are ways – unwitting ones – in which Jacobs makes it clear he was definitely one of the pack, especially when it comes to relating mad behaviour as if it were just part of the average Hollywood day. Here he is describing one of his boss’s difficulties:

Mia had a big white cat named Malcolm that she adored. She was always talking sign language to the cat, who was deaf. Mia’s obsession with Malcolm was bad enough, but the sign language really got on Frank’s nerves. He didn’t mind cats in general, but he came to despise Malcolm in particular. One day Mia was out by the pool, reading one of her Maharishi books and doing signs with Malcolm. Frank came out, didn’t speak to her. He took out a cherry bomb, quietly lit it, and placed it next to the cat’s food bowl. Kaboom! . . . I honestly hadn’t seen him so happy since he married Mia. ‘Deaf?’ was all he said. Mia started bawling. ‘How can anybody be so cruel?’ she cried. It got a lot worse when Malcolm never came back. He must have run all the way to Mulholland and gotten lost, maybe even eaten by the coyotes. I felt almost as bad as Mia.

On the one hand, poor Mia, poor George, poor Malcolm: it can’t be easy when people fail to understand the special bond that exists between animals and humans. On the other hand, Frank Sinatra, be my friend. Whichever hand rules, I would have to say (and this is what commends Jacobs’s book, as well as condemns it) that I will never listen to ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’ in quite the same way again, or watch Rosemary’s Baby in the same way either. That is George’s gift, just as it was Crawfie’s: they send workaday reality into situations where reality is a stranger, and behave like the older child at the magic show, the one who sees how the trick is done and can’t help shouting out the news, again and again, until the magician is undone and the children are depressed. Jacobs, unknown to himself, has clearly spent his life yearning to be the magician he can only shout down.

Thanks to George, or ‘Spook’, as his racist boss liked to call him, Sinatra’s life of sunning and sinning has a few new details, which will serve for some time to preserve the singer’s name in the annals of error. So, by and by, we find that the only time Sinatra went to church was to ask God to give him the Oscar for his role in From Here to Eternity. We learn, in no uncertain terms, how much our hero liked Ava Gardner: ‘The whores, the starlets, the stewardesses, Sinatra would have dumped them all in a split second if Ava would have come back to him.’ (The stewardesses! Oh, please, God. If I get the Oscar but I don’t get Ava will I still have to give up the stewardesses?) As things were, Ava was forever running off with some toreador, so Sinatra had to put up with the likes of Natalie Wood (‘kid all dolled up, total jailbait, in a form-fitting black party dress, and Mr S. went for it in a big way. Nothing dirty-old-mannish, he was never like that’). Jacobs has an excellent sense of everything in the world being possible, and his coolness when describing Sinatra’s cruelty is almost as devastating as the cruelty itself. The last word on the ladies:

He couldn’t be alone. Thus he always needed a girl, and she didn’t have to be famous. First he’d go for his leading lady. If she wasn’t free, he’d try some famous ex, like Lana Turner, whom he’d dated in the 1940s, for old times. Then he’d work his way down the food chain, starting with starlets, then the hookers, and, if all else failed, he’d call Peggy Lee, who lived down the block.

At every turn, Jacobs and his co-writer make sure that no one would mistake their book for the ‘Modern Guide to Male Sensitivity’. Women get it, gays get it (though Sinatra’s pack liked to have a Noel Coward around ‘to talk to the women’), Jews get it (‘Not that Mr S. was anti-semitic; he simply felt most comfortable with guys from the same background’) and, strangest of all, given that Mr J. is a black man, black people get it non-stop, as if it were something of a civil right for these entertainment thugs to make nigger jokes. ‘Vegas was a Wild West, cowboy town back then,’ says our favourite servant, ‘and these cowboys didn’t cotton to coloured dudes.’ In any event, Mr J. doesn’t consider himself to be very black, not in any typical way anyhow. He is tickled to remember that Sinatra and his Italian buddies would call each other ‘Dag’, as in dago. ‘Sometimes he’d even call me “Dag”. I was thrilled to be included as a paesano.’

There’s quite a lot of Atlantic City and Vegas-style deal-making, score-settling, credit-claiming, door-slamming, tax-evading and hate-building, most of which bleeds from the slightly chaotic interests of Sinatra and his Mafia buddies, but none of this is new and most of it could now be put down to Sinatra’s perpetual romanticising of his Hoboken childhood. Yet Mr J. never loses the instincts of a top valet: Sam Giancana, we learn, ‘had the most perfectly manicured hands and nails I’ve ever seen’. Johnny Rosselli, ‘who had done more time than the clock’, wore lovely shoes and the kind of rings you don’t see every day. All the girls were turned out like showgirls, nice teeth, great ‘pussies’, liking and appreciating our friend George, the valet of the dolls.

There’s nothing so killing as modesty on the rampage, and this book is a lovely demonstration of the way the quiet one can get to feel good and do bad at the same time. No matter what George Jacobs thinks he’s doing, over the course of these pages he makes the 20th century’s most famous crooner look like a nutcase and a chump, and makes himself seem desperate to be noticed. He gives us the lowdown on Sinatra’s tiny vanities – the spraying of hair-colouring on his bald patch every morning, the application of make-up down the left side of his face to hide marks – and supplies the highlights of his major rages. Sinatra was a man who knew how to get pissed off.

The spotlight was supposed to keep getting smaller and smaller until it went black and Sinatra would disappear. The Chinese camera operator forgot to turn off the light, ruining a dramatic fade-out. Mr S. went crazy, smashing up not only his dressing-rooms, but also his Peninsula suite. They said rock bands were hard on hotels, but Mr S. was worse, both foreign and domestic, wherever mistakes were made, whether on the stage, as in Hong Kong, or overcooking a room-service steak in Chicago. ‘Fucking slant-eye Chink bastards,’ he’d shout, and rip up a priceless antique screen or shatter a Ming vase. The guy got off on breaking things. I’d just stand back with my mouth shut and help the chambermaids pick up the pieces when it was over.

But the valet has his angry moments, too. He doesn’t like Joseph Kennedy when he comes to stay and, overall, he fails to extend the same tolerance to Ambassadorial bootleggers that he does to warbling whore-wranglers:

He not only told nigger jokes throughout the meals, he’d call the Indians ‘savages’ and the blacks ‘Sambos’ and curse the hell out of anyone who served him from the wrong side or put one ice cube too many in his Jack Daniel’s. ‘Can’t you get any white help?’ he’d needle Mr S. ‘Aren’t they paying you enough?’ After one day, only the hookers remained, except for one the abusive bastard tried to brand with his Cohiba. The blacks went back to Watts, the Indians to the reservation. Leaving me to be the sole whipping-boy of the man who may have held a Harvard degree, but was a disgrace to it, cruder and meaner . . . than any of the street mobsters that Mr S. ever hosted. Such was the father of our country’s most captivating President. Mr Ambassador, if anyone had the guts to spit in his face, a bravery that my boss sadly lacked, should have been called Mr Asshole.

Good old George, striking a blow for humanity. And that’s the troubling thing about the servant’s revenge: it has all the high-principled chops on its side, all the moral bunting tied around it, all the bells and whistles sounding for the Proletariat, as if a firm notion of rectitude were going to be recognised at the centre of a corrupt and uneven world. That may happen sometimes, but not often. Books written by the world’s tea-boys and bath-scrubbers are apt to exhibit the kinds of delusion they seek to unmask. That is what makes them such fun to read. George Jacobs has shown he is more subservient than he knows, and having the last word may just be a neurotic’s way of asking for something more.

[*] A Likely Story was written about in the LRB by Terry Castle (15 April 1999). The review appears in, and gives the title to, her latest book, Boss Ladies, Watch Out!: Essays on Women, Sex and Writing (Routledge, 309 pp., £55 and £15.99, October 2002, 0 415 93873 2).