Nancy Barbato Sinatra, 1917–2018
The ex-wife who stayed loyal to Sinatra
Nancy Barbato Sinatra spent her entire adult life devoted to the man she fell in love with as a teenager, Frank Sinatra, even though she was only the first of his four wives. They married in 1939 when Frank was earning $15 a week as a singing waiter, and divorced in 1951, when he was a superstar. During their tumultuous 12 years together, she endured rumors of his flings with Hollywood stars such as Lana Turner, Marlene Dietrich, and Marilyn Monroe. “My married life with Frank,” she said in 1950, “has become most unhappy and almost unbearable.” But their bond grew stronger when they split—she sent him homemade meals and answered his late-night phone calls when his latest relationship soured. “He never stopped loving her,” their granddaughter A.J. Lambert said. “And I know she never stopped loving him.”
Nanicia Rose Barbato was born to a large Italian-American family in Jersey City, said The New York Times. She was 19 years old when she met the 21-year-old Sinatra on the beach at Long Branch, on the Jersey Shore, “where both families summered.” They were soon married, and as a young bride she cooked his favorite dishes—spaghetti, lemon-meringue pie—and made the silk bow ties he wore in performance, “sewing new ones each time delirious audience members ripped one from his neck.” When Sinatra’s career expanded from music to acting in movies, the couple moved to Hollywood, said The Washington Post. “Fan magazines depicted Sinatra as a seemingly content family man, but he was often away from home.” He did little to hide his many flings and in 1943 got a showgirl pregnant.
Frank’s affair with the movie star Ava Gardner “made front-page headlines all over the world in 1949,” said The Times (U.K.). He divorced Nancy in 1951 and married Gardner a week later. Barbato Sinatra got the family home, an annual share of Frank’s income, and custody of the children: Tina, who became an actress, and Nancy and Frank Jr., who went on to successful singing careers. But her ex-husband remained a constant presence in her life—he would sometimes let himself into the family home and fall asleep on the sofa. Barbato Sinatra rarely talked about their relationship, but when asked once why she had never remarried, she had a simple answer: “After Sinatra?”