The bell ring-a-ding-dings for Ol’ Blue Eyes
Frank Sinatra, who died May 14 at 82, wasn’t always a Republican. In 1945, when he was thin and 30, he won a special Academy Award for The House I Live In, a short film in which he told a gang of street-corner kids that racial and religious differences “make no difference except to a Nazi or somebody who’s stupid.” He sang about “The people that I work with/The workers that I meet… The right to speak my mind out/That’s America to me.” Sinatra was a stalwart of Popular Front culture: When white students in Gary, Indiana, boycotted classes to protest the integration of their high school, Sinatra spoke in the school auditorium and sang “The House I Live In.” In 1947 he published an open letter to Henry Wallace in The New Republic, urging him to run for President to “take up the fight we like to think of as ours-the fight for tolerance, which is the basis of any fight for peace?’
Then came the crackdown. Right-wing papers started calling him “a pawn of fellow travelers.” In the eight years following “The House I Live In,” Sinatra was named twelve times in HUAC hearings. The New York Times Index has only one entry for Sinatra in 1949: “Sinatra, Frank: See US-Espionage.”
The pundits called it “Frank’s big nosedive.” The Hearst gossip columnists went after him; in 1947 he punched one of the most abusive, Lee Mortimer, at Ciro’s in Hollywood. The Hearst papers ran whole pages on the punch, and on the crooner’s political problems; one headline read “Sinatra Faces Probe on Red Ties.” Sinatra said Mortimer had called him a “dago.” Mortimer had been saying in his column that HUAC regarded Sinatra as “one of Hollywood’s leading travelers on the road of Red fascism.” He pledged to “continue to fight the promotion of class struggle or foreign isms posing as entertainment”–like “The House I Live In.”
Then Columbia records asked Sinatra to give back his advance, MGM released him from his film contract, he was fired from his radio show and his agent dropped him. His career, like those of so many other victims of McCarthyism, was in ruins.
His comeback began with From Here to Eternity in 1953. He returned to politics, now as a good Democrat. He campaigned for Stevenson in 1956–at a Hollywood Palladium rally he sang “The House I Live In.” In the 1960 election, his “High Hopes” was the official Kennedy campaign song. He had a second project that year, started shortly after Kennedy won the New Hampshire primary: breaking the Hollywood blacklist that had been in force since 1947. “Sinatra Defies Writer Blacklist/Hires Albert Maltz,” a New York Times headline read. Maltz had written “The House I Live In” and then refused to name names–for which he served time in a federal penitentiary.