Life with Joe


Life with Joe, I found out very swiftly, was anything but boring. The phone never stopped ringing, the invitations never stopped arriving and people would drop in on any excuse just for a chat. For a few weeks I had the definite feeling that many were passing by simply to give me the once over. Joe had acquired scores of female friends over the years and they had become quite possessive of him. His was a good shoulder to cry on when their husbands played away from home. Or, if their husbands were too tied up with work, Joe had been

Mamie Van Doren
Mamie Van Doren

happy to escort them to dances, cocktails, film premieres, gallery openings and first nights at the theatre. And he was a useful extra man for dinner parties. All this, they realized, would abruptly change now that I had appeared on the scene. They needed some reassurance from Joe that he would still be available for the occasional date and I needed to reassure them I was no threat. Joe was very skillful about handling both their hurt feelings and my sense of being an unwelcome intruder. In the end they totally accepted me. In fact several gave me some advice as to how to get by in New York.

“Sharpen your edges a bit, little one,” Julie Gabor, the mother of Eva, Magda and Zza Zza, told me one night, “you’re much too, how shall I say it – sveet? If you vant to be success in New York you gotta become more stronger, you know, more selfish and more demanding. Stay as you are, darlink, and you’ll die, for sure, I should know.”

I guessed, of all people, Julie Gabor should certainly know what she was talking about. After all she had successfully educated her three blonde daughters to appreciate what she considered the “finer” things of life – aging millionaires, 24 carat diamonds and multi-million dollar trust funds made out in their favour, not necessarily in that order.

Mama Jolie Gabor with Magda, Zsa Zsa and Eve
Mama Jolie Gabor with Magda, Zsa Zsa and Eve

At a ladies’ lunch party the actress Mamie Van Doren told me, “God, darling, you look so young. Make yourself look a bit older otherwise Joe will be had up for statutory rape. And none of us would want that now, would we?”

I think my jaw dropped open. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond.

“She’s just jealous,” Joe revealed later, “A woman past a certain age and all that! One day you’ll understand!”

Rita Gam, famous for once being the room-mate of Grace Kelly and for a brief but memorable part as a native American beauty in a Marlon Brando Western, warned me, “Darling, Joe’s got literally hundreds of girlfriends. Just keep a watchful eye, you know what I mean? I’m sure he loves you but…..”

But what? I wanted to ask but didn’t. There was no point. By that time I was pretty confident Joe was besotted by me and, although I got jealous from time to time with all the midnight phone calls from neurotic women seeking his sympathy, I never viewed them as a threat to what was fast blossoming into a serious relationship for us both.

In the end, though, I think most of his friends, both male and female, were happy for Joe he’d finally found someone he could live with and, more to the point, someone who could actually live with him.

Rita Gam
Rita Gam

In fact it even surprised Joe how easily he slid into “married” life with me, as he called it. He had been a bachelor for 45 years. So to invite me to live in his studio was a life-changing decision for him.

“I had absolutely no misgivings,” he told me a month or so after I moved in. “It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to me. I never hesitated for a moment. Nor have I regretted it.”

“Not even once?” I asked.

“Not even once,” he replied.

I never found my new lifestyle with Joe easy, since it required going out to at least three or four parties every single night. But I eventually found a formula to cope with it. To date I had never been a very social person so this nightly routine of Joe’s, which I was now expected to embrace, was a complete anathema to me.

“Look on the bright side, darling” he constantly reminded me, “it certainly has its advantages.”

I had to admit that was true. Firstly I was able to make important new contacts that were helpful to my work as a radio producer. And secondly, it enabled the two of us to take all-expenses paid junkets to places such as Jamaica, for the opening of a new resort in Montego Bay, to Aruba, for the opening of the new Sheraton Hotel Casino, to Palm Beach for the opening of “The Nutcracker Suite”. One weekend we flew down to Washington on the invitation of Perle Mesta to attend an event she was organizing, the 50th Anniversary Tribute to Ethel Merman.  A decade earlier Perle herself, the original Democratic “hostess with the mostess”, had been immortalized in the successful Broadway musical, “Call Me Madam”.

“And, best of all,” Joe continued, “if there is nothing else for us to do, we can always go downstairs (Carnegie Hall) and get free seats in the stalls or standing room at the back.”

That too was true. I knew I couldn’t complain. In just a few short months we had listened to artists such as Arthur Rubenstein, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and Ray Charles – all for free.

Ethel Merman
Ethel Merman

We were also invited to every first night, every movie premiere and every concert and ballet performance, including the Beatles at Shea Stadium, Rudolf Nuryev and Margot Fonteyn at the Lincoln Centre and Laurence Olivier on Broadway. Other than the endless society parties, I knew I had very little to complain about.

Six months after I met Joe I gave up the futile attempt of trying to combine my work schedule at WINS with his nightly routine. Although his contacts had become increasingly useful to my work and I was managing to get some “awesome guests”, as my boss, Sandy Lesberg, described them, I found I just couldn’t take the pace any more. Among the guests I had managed to invite on the show were pin-up girl Jayne Mansfield, Republican Mayoral candidate John Lindsay, composer Burt Bacharach, actors Gig Young and Tony Randall, New York Senator Jacob K Javits and the film critic Clive Barnes,

But the pace was furious, too furious for my constitution. I started taking amphetamines to keep me alert and functioning. Our combined nightly routines gave Joe and me little alternative other than try to sleep during the day. For Joe that was fine but, for me, that was impossible. The phone rang all the time and people constantly dropped by to leave an invitation, a request or simply to gossip. They had little understanding of the needs of us “night owls” and I found myself perpetually weary from lack of sleep.

Jayne Mansfield
Jayne Mansfield

One of our fellow “night owls” in the Carnegie Hall studios was the jazz pianist, Bobby Short. Bobby was the highly successful resident cabaret performer at Manhattan’s elegant Café Carlyle. Often, on the way home at night, Joe and I would drop by the Carlyle to enjoy Bobby’s unique talent on the piano.

One afternoon, soon after I moved in with Joe, Bobby called him to say,
”Joe darling, Frank Sinatra’s in town. Gloria and I are planning a dinner for him next week. I hope you and Caroline can come.”  The “Gloria” he referred to was his very close friend, the designer, Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper. Independent and headstrong, Gloria, had recently defied the wrath of her wealthy family and shocked New York society when she decided to move in with Bobby, the gay black pianist.

The dinner party numbered around twenty people. And, even though we literally lived just down the corridor, Joe and I predictably arrived late.

Bobby Short and friends
Bobby Short and friends

Dinner had already begun. Bobby got up to welcome us. He was dressed, not in his usual impeccable pin- striped suit but in a flowing white beaded caftan. He drew me to an empty chair next to Bill Paley, the founder of CBS Television. On my other side was Peter Duchin, the popular resident pianist at the St.Regis Hotel’s Maisonette Club. Peter’s wife Cheray Zauderer was seated across from us. Frank Sinatra sat a little further up, on my side of the table, between Gloria and Bill Paley’s beautiful wife, Babe. There were several other people there, some of whom I recognized, such as society beauty Fiona Thyssen and publicist Earl Blackwell, and others I did not. When we arrived the conversation and the wine were both in full flow.

Peter Duchin and new wife, Cheray Zauderer
Peter Duchin and new wife, Cheray Zauderer

Mouthing excuses, I edged into my seat. Bill Paley was very gracious. We had already had a nodding acquaintance at various functions before but this was the first time I was able to talk to him in depth.

I told him one of my best friends, Rupert Hitzig, worked for him.

“Talented young man he is, he’ll go far!” Bill predicted. And, although neither of us could have possibly known it then, he was right. In another ten years Rupert Hitzig would replace William S Paley to become the head of CBS.

Our conversation then veered towards the one person in New York that always managed to shock, fascinate and amuse me, Truman Capote. It was no secret that Truman was infatuated with Bill’s wife, the very beautiful Babe Paley. There was a time when Truman was so often in her company and in her homes in New York and Long Island that the Paley marriage could have been accurately described as a “ménage a trois”.

Babe and Bill Paley
Babe and Bill Paley

“Aren’t just a little bit jealous?” I teased after a couple of minutes warm-up.

“Of Truman?” he asked incredulously, “Why? He keeps my wife amused, entertained and flattered while I’m hard at work. What more could a man want?” He laughed.

I could see his point. “You mean all gossip and no sex?”

Truman Capote

He laughed again, “You got it! Hey, you’re a bright kid. When you need a job come and see me!” He raised his wine glass and winked.

By the end of the night, toasts were being made, each one more slurred and more cringing than the last. Most were in praise of the evening’s “special” guest, Frank Sinatra, telling him what a great man he was, what a privilege it was to be in his company and how fortunate we all were to know him.

Frank Sinatra

Personally I had never seen the attraction of Frank Sinatra, neither as a man nor as a singer. It seems there was a huge difference in his appeal for those born before and those born after the war. To the Sixties generation not only was he not of our decade, he didn’t seem part of our century. To us, brought up on the Beatles, the Byrds and the Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra was irrelevant. He was history, a musical relic from another era, much like the dinosaur. I found it hard to understand the adulation he enjoyed among my parents’ generation. To me he was physically ugly, too thin, too small and his ears stuck out too far. His language was vulgar, his manners coarse and he was already infamous for treating women with lecherous contempt and men with physical and verbal abuse.

And this night, at Bobby Short’s dinner, I was about to witness Frank Sinatra at his undeniable worst. When the toasts were over he raised his arms, stumbled to his feet and reached for his own glass to respond. The toast he made was not quite what everyone was expecting. Carefully surveying the room, eyeballing each woman in turn, he said,

“And I am privileged to be here. Thank you Bobby for inviting all these beautiful hookers. I want you all to know that,” he paused for dramatic effect and then, very slowly and deliberately pointing to each of the “hookers” around the table one by one, he said, “I have fucked every single one of them,” until his finger arrived at me, hesitating briefly, he added, “except her, who is she?”

Caroline Kennedy in Carnegie Hall taken by Richard Avedon.

A chill of complete horror pervaded the room. No one dared look anyone else in the eye. Wives, mothers and daughters froze. Husbands, fathers and sons glared. On both sides of me I felt Peter Duchin and Bill Paley shift uncomfortably. Everyone looked deep into their wine glasses, not daring to say a word.

I think the immediate reaction of all of us must have been had we heard right? Had Frank Sinatra just said what we thought he said?  Everyone looked at the drunken singer desperately hoping he was going to laugh, say it was a joke, apologize for his bad taste. But no, he was still standing there, innocently swallowing the contents of his glass, studying the expressions around him, thrilled at the mayhem he had just caused. One by one heads started to look up, each person looked at their escort. Doubts and questions must have been flooding their minds. Could what he said have been true? Was it just possible? When? Where? How did it happen? How dare he? How dare she? I shuddered to think what the conversations would be like later behind closed doors.

This was my first and, considering the circumstances, fortunately my last close encounter with Frank Sinatra and it clearly illustrated to me what an odious, obnoxious and belligerent character he was. He had broken every code in the book and he still stood there, conceited, gloating and self-satisfied as he watched everyone else in the room squirm. Drunk or not, there were no excuses to be made. And, besides, there was no doubt he was enjoying himself immensely. If nothing else, it clearly demonstrated he had no class at all. If he was determined to make such a compromising statement he should have made it in his own home, not at the home of someone he called his “friend”. By announcing this at someone else’s dinner party he had committed an unspeakable offence. Poor Bobby Short looked more shell-shocked than anybody.

Bobby Short and Gloria Vanderbilt
Bobby Short and Gloria Vanderbilt

I decided there and then that I despised Frank Sinatra and I silently vowed to sully his name in public whenever and wherever I had the opportunity. I was thrilled, decades later, when I met the diminutive blonde author, Kitty Kelley, and she handed me a copy of “His Way”, her devastating unauthorized biography on him. And I noted with glee that, despite threats against her life, despite moves to injunct the book, Sinatra and his mafia friends were unable to prove successfully to a court that the lurid details it contained about his links with organized crime and many of the disreputable activities he was involved in throughout his career were not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Author Kitty Kelley
Author Kitty Kelley

The book was published intact in 1986 and gave the public an insight into the more unsavoury aspects of his life. By this time his bad behaviour was well-known, his filthy language was legendary and his uncouth bullying treatment of women was publicly acknowledged. But, despite all this, the public still continued to adulate him. In their eyes he could do no wrong. Perversely it was Kitty Kelley, not Sinatra, who was considered by many to be the villain. She had dared to write the unpalatable truth about an American icon. It was Kitty Kelley, not Sinatra, who was vilified and shunned following its publication. And it was Kitty Kelley, not Sinatra, who suffered most from the after-effects. I tried to analyze why that should be. It confirmed something I already knew about the American public that they are willing to forgive everything, sordid language, criminal activities and even physical abuse of women as long as the person is a much-loved celebrity. And Frank Sinatra was just such a celebrity.

2 thoughts on “Life with Joe

  1. “It confirmed something I already knew about the American public that they are willing to forgive everything, sordid language, criminal activities and even physical abuse of women as long as the person is a much-loved celebrity.”

    ^ Very true Caroline, and just as much so in today’s America with regard to the world’s biggest village idiot Trump.

    A super awesome article, I might add 🙂

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