And no wonder. Sinatra’s early fame—he rocketed to stardom in 1943, four years after their marriage—was of a manic, invasive sort that has since become familiar but was shocking then. The New Yorker writer E.J. Kahn recorded that The Voice’s bobby-soxer fans were so obsessive that theater managers had to smear syrup of ipecac (a nausea inducer) over the glass display cases that held his picture lest the girls kiss them over and over again. Admirers plucked hairs from his head (or harvested them from the floors of the barbershops he frequented), and at least one claimed to be the proud possessor of a Sinatra hangnail, which she carried around in a locket.
“Big Nancy”—as she would be known, in contrast to her first child, who shared her name—pre-dated all that. She came from a big, boisterous Italian-American family in Jersey City. Her name was an Anglicization of Nanicia, and she grew up with opera always playing on the radio or Victrola in the background. Her father was strict but her table was open. Frank, who had never, ever had a steady girl, was smitten.
She pre-dated the fame, yes, and she endured and survived all the rest that fame brought: the move to Hollywood, the movies with Gene Kelly, the fatal attraction to Ava Gardner, the devastating career slump of the early ’50s when he seemed washed up, the Academy Award for From Here to Eternity, the broad, sunlit uplands of the classic Capitol Records years, the world tours, the early retirement, the comeback, and the long, slow fade into feebleness. It was to Big Nancy that Sinatra returned whenever the clouds hung low and dark, coming in quietly late at night, stirring the embers in the fireplace and falling asleep on the couch.
In the spring of 1976, almost 25 years after their divorce, with Barbara Marx, the woman who would become his fourth wife, pressing him to marry her, Frank surprised his children Nancy, Frank Jr., and Tina by conducting a discreet romantic liaison at his hideaway “Mountain House” near his Palm Springs compound. “My parents were presumably not playing Parcheesi,” Tina later wrote, and when the family all gathered to celebrate Easter, Big Nancy had taken the guest cottage nearest Frank’s master bedroom. “They were discreet around their children, even then,” Tina wrote, “and it was only after the lights were low and the kids safe in bed that Mom stepped out to be with the only man she ever loved.”
In the end, Sinatra married Marx—and he stuck with her through some troubled times. But moments before the wedding, he felt compelled to tell Nancy Jr. and Tina that he was torn. “I want you to know,” he said, “that I’ve thought this over very carefully. I’ve thought a lot about Mother, and I really tried to make things work again with her, because it would have been great for all of us. I’ll always love her, but this is the right thing for me right now.”